Perhaps no issue better reveals one of the growing divisions in the Republican Party than education policy. It wasn’t that long ago - 1996, in fact - that the party platform called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education in favor of a smaller federal government and greater power for states. But in the past decade, beginning with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, Republicans have seemed to be challenging Democrats to see who can win the misguided race to federalize education.
How did Republicans come to this place? In part, Republicans fell victim to the age-old notion that in a crisis, the federal government must come to the rescue. With America’s test scores lagging behind in international comparisons, U.S. policymakers increasingly saw kindergarten-through-12th-grade education in crisis. As governor of Texas, Mr. Bush had some success with regimens of testing and accountability, so he brought his team and ideas with him to Washington. The argument was that we could identify failing schools through national testing and thereby address the problem. Like poverty, drugs, illiteracy and other crises that led to federal initiatives, our underperforming schools moved Washington onto a war footing.
President Obama has continued to expand federal control of education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks testing can identify not only failing schools, but also failing teachers, and his “value added” approach seeks to tie test scores to the performance of individual teachers and, ultimately, to their salaries and job security. Because the federal government still has no constitutional authority to intervene directly in local schools, instead the feds bribe - sorry, incentivize - cash-strapped states and school districts to adopt their tests and reforms through their Race to the Top grant programs. Only Texas has declined to participate on the ground of state and local control.
As if this weren’t enough, it was announced recently that concrete steps are under way in Washington to develop a new national curriculum. The Department of Education is funding the development of national guidelines, teaching materials, tests and curricula, which have received some early expressions of support from people on both sides of the political aisle. Others, including this author, have signed a counterstatement pointing out that a one-size federal curriculum hardly fits our nation’s diverse educational needs or our system of federalism.
Republican reformers believe in their federalized approach because it enables them to make education more businesslike. By setting clear standards and testing all students, they are turning education away from process and toward outcomes. In addition, they are shifting the debate away from the argument for more money, which has been the constant refrain of teachers unions, to one about effectiveness. Still, this debate and the resulting testing and accountability regimes could and should be carried out at the state level, not in Washington.
At the deepest level, federalizing education suggests that many Republicans have given up on smaller government and state control in favor of using government to produce their own desired outcomes - an oxymoronic big-government conservatism. We can only hope that in the 2012 primaries, Republicans will rediscover the constitutional view that education, which is not a power delegated to the federal government, is best handled at the state and local levels.
David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former president of Pepperdine University.