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Is Federalism Hindering Successful School Reform in the U.S?

by Chip Brown, published

One of the most controversial elements in the debate about how best to assure that students in American public schools are both internationally competitive and prepared for their domestic responsibilities (the duties of citizenship, work, and life-long learning) is the question of whether this nation ought to have a single set of national standards (as opposed to the current 50 sets) to which all schools could adhere in devising and teaching a curriculum and in assessing student performance.  If you believe there is a need for a common set of standards for all of the nation’s school districts (which I do), a much more controversial question looms:  Should that set of standards be voluntary and non-federal or nationalized and compulsory?

This question is not solely an educational one.  It goes directly to the heart of one of the most fundamental principles of our system of government—federalism.  National standards, particularly compulsory national standards, as Susan Jacoby noted in a N.Y. Times opinion piece a few years ago, would upend one of “Americas most cherished and unexamined traditions:  local and state control of public education.”   Thus, even if the educational aspect of the question could be firmly resolved in favor of a common set of standards for all of America’s schools as being a necessary reform in the quest for international competitiveness , the tradition of local control of schools will not be a sacrifice easily made, if at all.  Here’s why.

One of the innovations in both governmental structure and governance theory established by the U.S. Constitution was the principle of federalism:  a system of division of powers between a national government on the one hand and several state or local governments on the other.  The theory holds that whatever power and authority is not delegated to the national government is reserved for use by the states.  It grew out of a distrust of centralized power, a need to get the Constitution ratified by the states, and a practical belief that some things are better left to state and local administration.  Public education being one of those non-delegated powers, it became by default the province of the states and through them, local school districts.  It has been that way since the nation’s founding.  Thus, any educational innovation, how ever well conceived and necessary it might be, and irrespective of the degree of support it has as a good reform idea, can easily be waylaid if it is perceived as an assault on a cherished tradition such as federalism.

Individuals in the national standards movement note, quite correctly, that the diversity and autonomy of America’s thousands of school districts is a serious weakness in the nation’s effort to become competitive internationally.  In terms of performance and content standards, school districts in this country are all over the map.  That is true of results as well.  Compulsory national standards proponents cite as examples for the U.S. to emulate the more uniform and centralized education systems that exist in most industrialized nations of Europe and Asia.  Those against whom our system is often compared and found wanting have highly centralized and prescriptive education systems.

Variations in terms of student knowledge and performance did not used to matter with respect to the strength and vitality of the nation’s economy.  In fact, historically, in some areas of the nation it was advantageous that some individuals not be educated well or educated at all so that they could provide a source of cheap labor. But waste of human potential is now a matter with serious consequences both for the individuals so affected and for the nation.

I do not regard national standards as a panacea, and there certainly are other structural reforms needed to improve the American system of education.  However, I do think national standards are essential to the development of the high performing educational system (for all students) that this country needs and upon which its future economic, political and social wellbeing depend.  But, where to start?  And, who should do it?

The logical place to begin is with the National Governor’s Association, which should push for a common set of rigorous content and performance standards for all states.  The implications of success on their part in this endeavor will be far reaching and will likely have a positive impact on host of other problems confronting state governments—from strengthening a state’s economy to improving the quality of life of its citizens.  Once states, particularly governors, first acknowledge the need for such a common set of standards, the battle pertaining to federalism can then be fought, if need be.

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