Restoring Federalism in Education

It's probably best that our nation's founders are not around to hear the current debate about education policy in the United States. Those who fought and worked so hard to create this new country likely would be badly confused, and probably greatly frustrated, by the language being used today.

Although those early leaders had widely different opinions about the workings of government--the battles between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton being a great example of the spirited debate that shaped our nation--a core principle made the formation of the United States possible. It was the notion that power not be concentrated in one place, and that decisions over public policy be made at the levels and by the leaders who are in the best position to make them.

In a word: federalism.

This central tenet has been overshadowed, if not lost altogether, after many decades of growing influence and power of the central government. Some of that was almost destined to happen, given the complex challenges of modern society. Yet, Congress, the federal courts, the presidency, and executive agencies comprise just one part of a larger system of government, one that also encompasses the states and local jurisdictions. Taken collectively, they constitute the diffusion of official authority that is the essence of federalism.

To be sure, the word "federal" has a much different connotation today. It has become synonymous with Washington, D.C., and the labyrinth of agencies that create rules that govern virtually every aspect of daily life. That overshadows the concept of shared governance that draws on the intelligence and good judgment of people at the local, state, and national levels. It is what federalism was meant to be. Thankfully, that may be changing.

What is happening in Congress right now can be viewed as an effort to restore a balance of power that was an original underpinning of the American governmental model. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have passed bills reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). And, while the two pieces of legislation are markedly different and need to be reconciled before any proposal can be enacted, they share a common affirmation of the vital role of state and local levels of government in providing public education. (In fact, the provisions in the two bills protecting the authority of school boards were inserted largely at the behest of NSBA and its state school boards association members.)

Reauthorization of ESEA would represent an incredibly important milestone, for at least two reasons. The first is the widespread consensus that this major federal law is badly in need of repair. Efforts to fix it have fallen short on previous attempts. This year, with both houses of Congress moving to pass legislation (in the Senate, by an overwhelming margin), is the best opportunity yet to enact a workable, effective new law.

Beyond that, this development is even more important because it represents an effort to restore balance among levels of government in the delivery of education. It recognizes that local, state, and national leaders should work in common purpose to strengthen and improve the public school system. That is not too much to ask. It is what we should expect. It is federalism in its truest and best sense.

This article was original published in American School Board Journal (Oct 2015).