May 13, 2005

Commentary:

Leave the Feds Behind

By Neal McCluskey

On Monday (May 2), Utah Governor Jon Huntsman enacted legislation telling the federal government that the people of Utah, not policymakers in Washington, will decide how they’ll run their own schools. Probably not coincidentally, the next day an op-ed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in USA Today served notice that Utah’s insolence “could put more than $75 million of federal funds at risk.”

Unfortunately, Utah, and every other state that tries to buck the intrusive No Child Left Behind Act, faces a big problem: dollar signs. How do state politicians tell their constituents that they’re turning down tens of millions of federal dollars?

It’s an especially hard task because policymakers in Washington talk as if they’re giving away free money, like parents who give their kids an allowance, and merely ask the children to follow a few, simple rules in exchange. As Spellings wrote, “A few states in particular are testing boundaries, trying to see how far they can stray from the law without getting grounded and losing funds.”

Unfortunately, one key point is almost never made in the debate between the states and their federal benefactor: Politicians in Washington are not spreading largesse around the country, blessing each state with education funds from heaven. They’re really just giving money back to the states and taxpayers they took it from to begin with, but with a good percentage of the funds siphoned off and a whole slate of rules attached. Where does the federal government get money, after all, if not from taxpayers?

Critically, the Constitution grants the federal government no authority whatsoever over education. The Framers gave the federal government a very small number of specifically enumerated powers because they knew there was little the federal government could do better than the states and the people. Not surprisingly, the word “education” is found nowhere among those powers.

The Framers also knew, though, that despite its inability to deal effectively with most of the nation’s problems, if given the chance the federal government would grow beyond its proper powers and trample on the states’ and the people’s independence. As Madison wrote, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Madison’s warnings were eventually ignored. When politicians started offering federal money for educational problems, and voters in the 1950s and ’60s sent enough of them to Washington to let it happen, control of the government was lost. Having the feds run classrooms was only a matter of time.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who are throwing tantrums about the law don’t understand that if you take federal dollars, you take federal rules. Or, worse, they just want to get their hands on other people’s money. “If you regulate, you have to pay,” said NEA President Reg Weaver, justifying the suit launched by his infamously taxpayer-money-grubbing union and nine disgruntled school districts. Similarly, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal explained that “we need funding and flexibility” in defense of his state’s lawsuit challenging NCLB as an unfunded mandate.

The NEA and Connecticut are part of the problem. They are happy to be bought — they’re just raising their prices.

So what are taxpayers to do if they want their freedom back? Unlike most of the states rebelling against NCLB, they must tell politicians who promise federal solutions to education problems that they’re on to them and they’ll no longer let themselves be bought. Citizens have to demand that the Constitution be obeyed, and they must be prepared to vote out politicians who violate it. Anything less, and their choice will continue to be either their money, or their freedom.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.Cato Institute.

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