States, Not the Feds, Should Lead Education Reform
The era of Donald Trump offers conservative reformers opportunities they have not seen since the 1980s. The most significant are in education, where the federal government has aggrandized its power, rendering states impotent. This overreach comes at the expense of two things very dear to the nation—our schoolchildren and our understanding of shared power.
Though the Trump administration will no doubt address the former problem, its means of doing so may very well exacerbate the latter. Too often, well-intentioned, conservative executives end up using federal power to heal the wounds caused by the very same bludgeon—federal power.
If President Trump is correct in his inaugural exhortation that “now is the hour of action,” then states—not federal bureaucrats—need to lead the charge on education policy.
Among the many problems facing American education, the most significant may be our schools’ and colleges’ utter failure to teach civic education. Two generations of American students have been taught precious little about the American Founding or the Constitution, let alone the philosophical foundation of the American system of government—federalism. That notion of shared power between the federal government and states has, as a result, withered.
How fitting, then, that Texas—where the American spirit of independence, work ethic, freedom and a vibrant notion of state power is palpable—take the lead in renewing federalism. And how fitting that it do so in the policy area where revitalized state power is most needed: education.
During the otherwise-bleak years of the previous administration, the Lone Star State has shined as a beacon of liberty, deregulation and restrained government authority. Harkening to Justice Louis Brandeis's early-20th-century comment that “states are the laboratories of democracy,” Texas-based initiatives have sprouted across the nation. It's no Texan braggadocio to observe that nationwide, efforts in tort reform, deregulation, tax reduction and criminal justice reform originated in Texas. The resulting “Texas Model” has become the blueprint for leaders in dozens of states.
And that is precisely how our system should work. Though we are all familiar with the legitimate claims based on state sovereignty and the Tenth Amendment, our Founders viewed those as mere baseline expectations. In the realm of public policy, they saw the states as taking the initiative, being so bold and innovative that the federal government would have to serve as a check on them—not the other way around, as the case has been in recent years.
As the Obama administration would be the first to say, Texas has led those efforts to check federal power. That defensive posture was necessary—and, for the Republic, crucial. But now Texas and other states must seize the field of education policy, exercising their own power with bold policy initiatives.
The timing for Texas policymakers is perfect. The state's biennial legislative session has just begun, and the momentum for an education overhaul has never been stronger. At the National School Choice Week rally earlier this week, both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave rousing, full-throated endorsements of school choice reforms.
There are obstacles, to be sure, but even the defenders of the status quo recognize that it's hard to defend the mediocrity of the status quo.
Among the many school choice vehicles, the most far-reaching—for Texas and the United States—is an Education Savings Account (ESA). Built on the successes of early choice vehicles such as tax-credit scholarships, ESAs offer wider and easier usage, removing the barriers to access that have been foisted on choice programs by opponents. Parents may use an ESA to pay for a host of education-related expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring, special needs programs and books.
In sum, an ESA gives parents an unprecedented means for customizing their child’s education—the exact opposite of the conveyor-belt, cookie-cutter approach that has become modern American education.
Though some reformers have advocated for federal ESAs, the inefficiency inherent in the large federal bureaucracy begs for states to take the lead. Texas, the most populous state with a bent toward conservative, free-market reforms, has a unique opportunity to show that states, as our Founders expected, can be at the forefront of policy innovation.
There could not be more at stake. Our children deserve an end to zip-code discrimination, which dramatically limits their access to decent educational options. Furthermore, the civic health of our American Republic—in particular, the long-standing view that states, not the feds, would lead—hangs in the balance.
If there ever was a time for all Americans to summon the Spirit of 1836—the year of the Texas Revolution—now would be the time.
Kevin D. Roberts, Ph.D., is a longtime educator who is Executive Vice President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.