Back to Constitutional Basics in Education
Jennifer Marshall /
In the mid 1960s, education policy took a wrong turn, away from America’s founding principles. That was when President Lyndon B. Johnson, as a part of his War on Poverty, created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). It was the first major federal foray into local schools.
But the Constitution doesn’t provide for a federal role in education, and public schools had traditionally been under the jurisdiction of local authorities.
What’s more, Washington’s intervention seemed to bring out the worst in education governance: State officials became the middlemen to administer federal funding and bureaucratic bloat followed. Staff at state education agencies doubled in the five years after ESEA became law.
In 1965, ESEA was about 30 pages long. Today ESEA is known as No Child Left Behind, and its prescriptions for American schools run on for almost 600 pages.
After multiple reauthorizations, the law has accumulated program after program to intervene in everything from English as a second language to after-school care. Meanwhile, federal education spending has tripled, while student achievement has generally stagnated.
How can we steer a course back toward our founding principles in education?
The first step is to send dollars and decision-making authority out of Washington and back to states, localities, and ultimately, parents.
That’s why Heritage analysts have developed an education policy proposal that would allow states to consolidate funding from dozens of federal education programs–cutting bureaucracy by eliminating multiple program applications–and direct the funding toward local education priorities. Members of Congress have adopted the plan as the conservative alternative to No Child Left Behind, known as “A-PLUS.”
A critical element of the plan is its shift in accountability. In most education policy discussions, accountability means answering up the bureaucratic chain of command to Washington. But real accountability answers to parents and other taxpayers. Real accountability provides transparency for expenditures and academic results, showing parents their children’s progress and taxpayers their return on investment.
To continue in this path of reform, state and local policy should allow money to follow students to the educational setting of their parents’ choice. Freeing parents to shape their children’s education according to their needs in a setting that supports the family’s character-forming role will not only take American education back to the Founders’ ideals. It will also equip us for the future far better than the centralized factory model of education of decades past.