The words “education,” “schools,” and “curriculum” do not appear in the U.S. Constitution or any Amendments. This is not to say the Founders were not supportive of public education. Many of them, most notably Thomas Jefferson, wrote in support of the concept because they believed that, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
Importantly, the Founders envisioned that the states would promulgate and implement policies related to public schools, which is why many state constitutions lay the groundwork for education policy. But today our education system is very different from the one the Founders imagined. Despite the limits of the Constitution, the federal government has a heavy hand in education policy. This overreach is harmful to state autonomy, and impedes the flexibility of students and educators.
First, it is important to understand the Founders’ motive in keep education within the realm of the states. The American founding celebrated (and indeed much of American culture today still celebrates) individualism. We understand that each child’s mind is unique and the process of learning may be different from child to child. Not only that, but each state’s population is unique. Some states may see fit to include more agricultural classes; others may have little need for such a curriculum.
The Founders understood that the fewer decisions the federal government makes, the more decisions are left to states, local government, teachers and students.
But this principle has slowly eroded. The federal government’s role in education expanded incrementally during the second half of the twentieth century. The federal government led the way in desegregating schools in the 1960’s. In 1965, President Johnson created the federal Head Start (preschool) Program. In 1979, President Carter established the Department of Education.
More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed by President George W. Bush, tied federal Title I dollars to state education policy decisions, and non-participating states stood to lose millions of education dollars. This is the main mechanism for federal involvement in education policy. The Spending Clause has allowed the federal government to manipulate state policies through conditions upon federal money.
The Spending Clause, found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1, states, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.”
Today perhaps the most influential (and most controversial) education policy matter is the Common Core Standards Initiative. It is a set of math and English standards for each grade level. Like many other education policy ideas, Common Core is a well-intentioned effort to raise expectations for students and provide a higher quality of education for them.
Defenders of the Common Core will say that it is not a federal program; it is state-led. Indeed, states do have the freedom to opt out of the common core standards. So far, 45 states have opted in, and five states have opted out.
The Common Core Standards Initiative is related to the federal Race to the Top program, introduced in 2009. Race to the Top is essentially a competition among the states for federal cash, $4.35 billion in total. In order to even participate in this competition, states must implement college and career-ready standards and assessments.
Most states clearly understood this to mean acceptance of the Common Core Standards. Only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia and Minnesota opted not to adopt the standards (and MN only opted out of the math standards). Even these opt-out states are required to develop other standards to participate in Race to the Top.
There has been much heated debate about the standards and their educational content. Criticisms include: The Standards are not rigorous enough. The English standards do not include enough classic literature. The content is politicized, favoring labor unions and universal health care. The content is not age-appropriate.
But a review of the curriculum is beyond the scope of this essay. It should suffice to say that all of this debate is evidence that the Founders were right: People from various states, cultures, and backgrounds should not have to agree on one-size-fits-all educational standards or assessments. Taking away this flexibility from states, even if only by bribing the states with federal cash, has taken us far from the vibrant and diverse educational system the Founders envisioned for American children.