Bill Clinton used to enjoy a reputation as a policy wonk, a person
puts political pragmatism and detail ahead of conviction and dogma. But
with his State-of-the-Union education proposal, he plunges headlong into
statist ideology. His idea comes down to this: let the federal
have more control over local schools and their services will improve.
Is there an honest man alive who actually believes that? After 50
of progressively centralized educational control, is there a parent in
land who truly trusts the feds to control their child’s teaching? If
anything is axiomatic in American politics it is this: the more the feds
run the schools, the worse they get.
For 50 years, children have been cruelly used as guinea pigs in
educational experiments conducted by the courts, the Congress, and the
executive branch. These planners have combined school districts, bused
children out of their neighborhoods, imposed far-flung theories of
and math, paid for a vast and expanding educational bureaucracy, and
parents to butt out until the experiments are over.
Well, they are over and the result has been disastrous. For vast
of parents in this country, educating their children isn’t simply a
finding the right service to fill a need. Instead, it is a gargantuan
struggle against bureaucracies and special interests. It means moving tothe right school districts, fighting the teachers’ unions, and worming
your way through a system that seems designed to force everyone into
Such problems always arise in public institutions. The
relationship isn’t the same as it is in the rest of the economy, and
institutions too often squeeze both. But the crucial difference in the
postwar period of education has not been the shift from private to
public — that occurred a century earlier — but from local control to
then federal control.
Right-thinking conservatives in the late 1970s began to understand
problem, and swore that if a Republican ever captured the White House,
Department of Education would be the first agency to go. Well, it didn’t
turn out that way, because some wrong-thinking conservatives believed
could do more good by exercising power than by dismantling it.
Here we sit nearly 20 years later with an educational system more
controlled by the federal government than ever before. The means of
have been the usual two: coercion and bribery. The coercion has taken
via court-ordered demographic shufflings that keep children and families
constant turmoil. The bribery has come in the form of hundreds of
in federal aid to education.
In threatening to cut off money to local and state school systems
don’t obey Clinton’s Department of Education, he is merely calling in
bribes. As Clinton knows, this kind of proposal is tough to argue
Shouldn’t taxpayers get their money’s worth? And after all, even if the
person who pays the piper doesn’t call the tune initially, the piper
eventually comes around to favor the tastes of those who pay his bills.
And what tune does the federal government favor? It’s a very familiar
It asserts that all children are equally educable, that diversity is
a strength, that children need socialization more than real skills, that
educational professionals should have more rights over their subjects
parents, that all teachers should join the union, and that any attempt
chart an independent course must be crushed.
It’s hard to believe, at this late date, that there needs to be any
discussion about whether these nostrums can really be the basis of
schools. In every state, we see popular movements working to undermine
the influence of social engineers and to restore something of the old
education ought to be a local function, controlled by parents and
But when Clinton proposes more federal control, he is careful not to
invoke all these tired liberal cliches. Instead he talks about
discipline and the basics. Cut away the speech writer’s rhetoric,
and what you have is old-fashioned leftist ideology working
with special-interest politics.
The special interest in this case are the teacher’s unions, who know
if they are ever to exercise total control over America’s schools, it is
going to be by working at the federal, and not the state, level. This is
also the basis for his wildly underfunded, mandate-imposing suggestion
hire an additional 100,000 teachers across the country. It’s a sop to
National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers,
of the activist groups he can depend on for unswerving political
There’s a lesson here for conservatives too. Those who have been
by the prospect of educational vouchers need to realize that it
means government control over private schools. Voucher-taking schools
in time, become exact copies of the public schools, and fully roped into
the federal educational regime.
Clinton says he will cut off aid to school districts that don’t obey
Fine. Let principled Republicans take the first step, and gut federal
educational spending. That’s the first step to restoring some semblance
local control, which means a step away from decades of failure.