The election of Donald Trump as president and the confirmation of longtime school choice leader Betsy DeVos as education secretary are ushering in a major debate about using the federal government to promote school choice. There is much the federal government can and should do to promote choice within legitimate constitutional boundaries. However, education reformers now face an enormous temptation to use federal power to foist choice upon the states, which would be destructive not only for the U.S. constitutional order but also for the long-term prospects of school choice itself.
The wheels of temptation are already turning. For years, some reformers have floated a proposal to make funding under Title I of the federal education code “portable.” These funds are currently shipped from the federal government to local school districts based on local poverty rates, in hopes of helping close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. The proposal is to let parents who live in districts receiving Title I funds claim their children’s share of this funding and use it to finance school choice.
The president campaigned on a promise to promote school choice at the federal level. His choice of DeVos seems to indicate—to the limited extent that such things can be predicted—that some attempt to fulfill this promise may occur. Naturally, Title I portability is now rising to the top of the education policy agenda. In the past, reformers like Marco Rubio have proposed federal tax breaks for donations that support private school scholarships; for now, though, Title I is making the most noise.
Education reformers face an enormous temptation to use federal power to foist choice upon the states, which would be destructive not only for the U.S. constitutional order but also for the long-term prospects of school choice itself.
Advocates of this reform mean well, and certainly it could be expected to do a significant amount of short-term good by extending a lifeline to students who need choice. The long-term cost of selling out our principles for a quick fix, however, would be high.
Let’s start where all public policy ought to start, but where almost none does start these days—with the U.S. Constitution. One of the key weaknesses of the Constitution from the very start was its inadequate clarity about the division of power between federal, state, and local governments. This weak point grew into a fatal flaw in 1913 with the 17th Amendment, which eliminated the only effective check on the growth of federal power: the election of U.S. Senators by state legislatures rather than by popular vote.
Title I portability would take advantage of, and thereby strengthen, one of the most important ways in which the federal government tramples on federalism: grant programs. In almost every area of policy, from education to poverty to medicine to police, the federal government saps state and local control by offering states and localities funding. These funds come with strings attached, putting the federal government in the driver’s seat.
I speak with some urgency on this issue because I have repented from this kind of thinking myself. When the No Child Left Behind law was first enacted, I supported it because I figured: “As long as the federal government is going to send huge piles of money to the states for education anyway—and it will—we might as well get something good in return.” I have come to see why that argument is wrong.
The real problem is not where the money goes but where the money comes from. If the federal government found a giant pot of leprechaun’s gold every year, so that the only question was how to use the money, it might be worth discussing whether some of that money should go to the states. But that’s not how things work.
The federal government gets the money for Title I and other federal grant programs by taking it from the states by taxing their citizens. Each state has a limited tax base; its citizens can only pay so much in taxes (a lesson we all learned from Arthur Laffer a generation ago). Higher federal taxes reduce the ability of states and localities to raise their own tax revenue.
We gave the federal government the power to tax us in order to fund federal programs—like the military, the State Department, the Supreme Court, national cash-for-clunkers buybacks, and stimulus programs that feed cocaine to monkeys. If the federal government can tax the citizens of the states in order to fund state programs, imposing its own mandates as a condition of receiving the funds, then we no longer really have state governments. The states are just administrative departments of the federal government.
It’s important not to overstate how bad things are here. This process of federal takeover is gradual, and it has not reached complete federal control. In fact, state and local control remains significantly more robust in education than in most policy areas.
But make no mistake about where things are heading. If we want to continue living in a democratic republic and not in a technocratic oligarchy, we should be fighting tooth and nail to resist the process of federal takeover, not strengthening it. Title I portability would accelerate our already-breakneck slide toward a society with a permanent coastal ruling class.
There is even an exception that proves the rule. When Bill Clinton proposed federal reform of welfare programs, which turned out to be a tremendous success, some conservatives balked at the idea of the federal government imposing welfare reform. Charles Krauthammer pointed out, however, that the federal government had already taken almost complete control of welfare programs, and had badly broken them. Under the principle of ancient wisdom known as “you break it, you bought it,” he said, the federal government ought to fix what it had broken before returning these programs to local control.
That still makes sense to me. But it’s much better to avoid federal control in the first place. Title I portability would establish federal control of education.
What irony! Conservatives took the lead in fighting against the Common Core initiative on federalism grounds, because the federal government was using Common Core as an opportunity to establish control of education. Will they now hand over our schools to the feds for a promise of school choice?
Damage to the constitutional order is not the only price to pay, however. Title I portability would be a short-term win for school choice, but the cause of choice itself would be imperiled in the long term.
It would be the states, not the federal government, which would create systems for parents to access choice through Title I portability. And not just the states, but the education bureaucracies of the states. So the bureaucrats most directly threatened by school choice would be the ones designing the programs.
In other words, these programs would be designed to fail. Think it can’t happen? In Florida a decade ago, a school voucher program for students in academically failing public schools was totally sabotaged by the way the state education bureaucracy implemented it. Difficult application procedures and other artificially created obstacles made it extremely difficult for parents to access the choice to which they were entitled.
And make no mistake, the movement would pay a huge price for that. Just as successful school choice programs make it easier to create more programs, failed programs do the reverse. Just look at how the failure of one very poorly designed voucher program in Louisiana is being used by teacher unions nationwide to discredit all school choice.
There is plenty the federal government can do within the limits of its legitimate authority to promote school choice. Right now it sponsors a tiny, underfunded, artificially restricted school voucher program in Washington, D.C.; that program should be exploded into a universal choice program for the whole city, with all students and all schools eligible. School choice on military bases and in U.S. territories could be explored. If we had a president with a really wicked talent for mischief, and he wanted to use it for something more productive than infantile 3 a.m. tweets, he might consider offering Education Savings Accounts as a job benefit for all federal employees.
While Title I portability represents a short-term opportunity for school choice, if we enact it we will foreclose much greater opportunities for school choice in the long run. We would be helping thousands of kids today, but we would damage our chances to help millions of kids for generations. The school choice movement needs to decide whether it is in the business of quick fixes or an epochal transformation of the education system.