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The President Goes Wrong on Education

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President Clinton has made education the centerpiece of his second administration. In his State of the Union address he introduced a multifaceted program that would cost $51 billion in the coming fiscal year. The program is expensive, but perhaps worse, it is wrong-headed. We need Washington to do less, not more, in education.

Clinton announced three goals: “Every 8-year-old must be able to read; every 12-year-old must be able to log on to the Internet; every 18-year-old must be able to go to college.” To meet those goals he set out a ten-point program, including national educational standards, nationally developed tests, federal help for teacher certification, tax credits and deductions for college, and a one-million-person citizen army to teach reading. He also called for expansion of Head Start, public school choice, character education, federal help for local school construction, and an Internet connection for every classroom and library.

What’s wrong with those things? Whatever else may be said of them, they are no business of the federal government. The president anticipated that objection. “Education is a critical national security issue,” he said. Well, a learned population is better than an ignorant one. But that doesn’t justify Washington’s meddling. It does not have the authority to stick its nose into anything connected to the American people’s well-being. The framers of the Constitution cannot be accused of underestimating the value education. Nevertheless, they left it off the list of prerogatives granted to national government. As the framers set things up, it can exercise only the powers expressly delegated. All other matters were left “to the people or the states.”

Thus, the first count against the Clinton plan is that he is overstepping his authority. The second count is that those are bad ideas in themselves. The great governmental lesson of our age is the utter failure of centralization. The planned economies of the East collapsed because central planning contradicts what is required for the success of any enterprise: freedom and entrepreneurship. Yet centralization is what Clinton seeks in education. Of course he extols the virtues of local control. In America you have to do that because the tradition is so strong.

But his program, like so many federal programs before it, would have a centralizing effect on education. Standards and tests would be developed centrally. His attempt to distinguish between “national” standards and “federal” standards is an empty rhetorical device. He conceded the point when he said, “Every state and school must shape the curriculum to reflect these standards.” Then he reinforced the message of centralization: “To help schools meet the standards and measure their progress, we will lead an effort over the next two years to develop national tests of student achievement in reading and math.”

The problem with centralization is that it limits liberty, and liberty is the source of creative discovery. If Washington is writing standards and buying local conformity with the taxpayers’ money, there is little scope for competing ways of providing education. But competition, and the freedom of action it depends on, are what produce better ideas. It is not enough that federal authorities will consult many people before issuing standards. What we need is a continuing competitive process because we don’t know what we will know tomorrow

The way to get all the benefits of a competitive process is to respect the freedom of parents to buy the educational services they think best for their children and the freedom of entrepreneurs to offer whatever services they think may find a market. Since anyone might come up with a good idea, freedom for entrepreneurs means freedom for everyone. Education must be decentralized down to the family level. Anything less is political hubris.

Educational freedom was a huge success once in this country. Long before there were local government school districts and a national education policy America was the most literate, prosperous and dynamic society in history. It takes a government to produce a national education crisis. It will take the separation of school and state to lead us back out.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.