McCluskey: Want the Feds Out of Schools? Stop Taking Their Money

Neal McCluskey, the associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, believes that if conservatives want to make a real impact on federal education policies, they need to learn to deliver their message more coherently. One of the first steps to take in that direction is to realize that it is impossible to square a belief in small government and federal non-interference while holding a devotion to government funding and an adherence to “standards and accountability.”

What aroused McCluskey’s ire was an article by Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute on how education can be improved and local control of school systems could be maintained — all while federal money keeps flowing and Washington keeps control over the metrics used to judge school quality. According to McCluskey this is both impossible and unconstitutional, and he supports this view by quoting Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution which limits the powers Congress may reserve for itself.

In an effort to deal with the very clear failures of federal education policy — but without the clarity of following the Constitution – Hess and Kelly offer three things they think the Feds can and should focus on: transparency, research, and “trust-busting.” However, all three ignore the fundamental political reality that school systems tend to be controlled by their employees because the employees have the most at stake. And what are their incentives? Same as mine and yours: to get compensated as generously as possible and have no one hold them accountable for their performance. The result, of course, has been oodles of money spent without meaningful academic improvement.

Hess and Kelly’s suggestion on how to resolve the unresolvable would be to prohibit the federal government from actually imposing any kind of specific standards, metrics or curricula, but at the same time requiring states that accept federal cash to report their achievement data and show a certain “return on investment” to qualify for more. How the government can set a specific rate of return without imposing any kind of standard is harder to understand. Isn’t a “specific standard” exactly what this return on investment is?

 How exactly do Hess and Kelly expect the Feds to both stop short of mandating curriculum and standards, and provide an accepted measure of specific schools’ return on investment? Even if you could thread the needle for a while, it is very hard to imagine Washington not eventually narrowing acceptable measures down to a single curriculum and test so that results could be uniform and distilled into soundbites.

Unfortunately for Hess and Kelly’s argument, it is impossible to end government control of education without simultaneously detaching it from the government teat, says McCluskey. To allow free market forces to shape education will, necessarily require giving individuals, not government entities, full control over how their educational funds are spent.