The Nationalization of American EducationJohn Ebersole | Former President, Excelsior College
We usually think of education, at all levels, as a state responsibility. Yet, there is nothing in our constitution that makes this explicit. A result has been growing involvement by the federal government, at both the K-12 and tertiary levels. An example of this, and the backlash it has created, can be seen in the Common Core Curriculum.
The Common Core for elementary and secondary students has touched off a storm of debate not because of content, but rather because of the perceived “intrusion” of the federal government into an arena historically administered by state and local authorities. This move toward greater centrality of decision-making has come about because of presumed failures of legacy systems to act effectively in advancing education attainment, as well as the growing realization that greater education is an essential need for our country’s future. Absent an educated workforce, our economy is endangered, as is our technology-dependent national defense. In short, some at the federal level have come to believe that education is too important to be left entirely to others, with their varying standards of quality and achievement.
In reviewing the actions of President Obama’s Department of Education, it is easy to see that the federal government is now moving “upstream,” adding hundreds of new rules and regulations for higher education, while also commandeering the non-governmental regional accreditors to assist with their enforcement. Lacking a Congressional mandate for these actions, the department has been quick to tie Title IV financial aid entitlement to compliance. In other words, “do as we say or we will take way the financial support your institution is dependent upon.”
Previously, America’s federal government provided roughly 5 percent of public education’s budgets (at all levels). Today it nears 20 percent and is growing. While those fighting this trend remind us that in keeping with the 10th Amendment, powers and responsibilities not specifically reserved to the federal government by the Constitution reside with the states. Others note, however, the use of the “general welfare” clause (Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution), by both Congress and successive administrations, has usurped local prerogatives on multiple issues.
The likelihood of any of this changing under a future democratic president is almost nil. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have each voiced their intent to introduce some form of subsidized or “free” college education if elected. Clinton’s plan, which set the bar for her rivals, would essentially replace state support for public higher education with federal tax dollars ($350B). What doesn’t appear to have been considered is the increasing opposition of state taxpayers to supporting an inefficient process that largely ignores the needs of 85 percent of today’s non-traditional college students. To think that they will be pleased that their federal dollars will be used for this same purpose is questionable.
Should one of the proposals now being debated find its way to reality, it would be safe to declare that the move toward “nationalizing” education will be complete. As we have seen with Title IV, the threat of denying or removing access to federal funds provides the department with the leverage necessary to ensure compliance, by states and institutions.
Those who lament such a future need to refer back to the earlier point about the growing need for a more highly educated and trained citizenry. They should also recognize that state actions to reduce financial support has forced colleges/universities to raise tuition and fees, making them nearly self-sustaining (in the State of Vermont, for example, one college president recently noted that only 1 percent of his budget now comes from Montpelier).
With state taxpayers no longer willing to support the idea of a “common good,” federal involvement looks more reasonable than first thought. However, the old adage “be careful what you ask for,” comes to mind. With federal control, we may well see the party in the White House moving along partisan lines in regard to what is taught, what is not taught and how and when assessments are made and used. Even if this is not the case, we have already seen department interference into the accreditation process, as well as attempts to change state oversight procedures relative to online learning, requiring curricula review for specific certificate programs, (though not yet for degrees, even though certain majors do not meet the compensation and employability criteria required for less expensive credentials).
The problem, thus, is one of considerable complexity. On the one hand it is difficult to argue the fact that many states, for different reasons, have done a less than sterling job of providing support for education at any level, or that the need for education has ever been greater, for our nation and our economy. Without federal action, intrusive and heavy-handed as it can be, America may well continue its slide down world rankings. The general welfare is at stake.
Author Perspective: Administrator