There was a recent article in the “Huffington Post” taking many conservatives to task for their argument that the federal government should get out of education. They argue that would be a serious mistake. Using Utah Senator Mike Lee as the article’s whipping boy, the article then goes on to argue that the federal government extricating itself from public education would go against history and there is a veiled assertion of conservatives not being patriotic and being hypocritical. As proof, they point out to laws passed before there was a true federal government. Specifically, they cite the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Both these acts were mainly the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson. After the Revolution, the Second Continental Congress was seeking ways to raise revenue. With no system of taxation since there was no Constitution yet, Jefferson turned to selling land west of the original 13 colonies that were ceded to the new “country” by the Treaty of Paris. Jefferson saw this as a way to raise revenue and the Second Continental Congress sent out a group of surveyors to map the land. What they developed was a “township” system, each 36 square miles and each further subdivided into 36 lots for sale. However, certain lots were set aside for public use. Lot 16- a centrally located lot- was set aside for a public school.
Why would Jefferson be agreeable to this system? What the Huffington article fails to mention is that certain lots were also set aside for religious institutions. If we accept that article as proof that the newly formed federal government intended to be involved in public education, then using that logic we have to conclude that they also intended for government support of religion, but that would blow liberal thought out of the water. Essentially, this tactic adopted a northern system of land use and planning- the central square theory to foster a sense of community. In repeated comments among our Founders one will hear that the tyranny proposed by those opposed to a strong federal government would be combated by an informed (educated) and moral (religious) citizenry. Secondly, through its central planning methodology, it actually discouraged what many call the southern system which gave rise to the plantation system which was supported by slavery. Hence, the whole system and its set-aside for lots for public education may not have been a dedication to public education per se, but rather a very shrewd way to thwart the spread of slavery and the plantation lifestyle. We can also assume that there was a little protection of their own interests since many of the southern members of the Continental Congress were plantation owners and they did not want competition in the new territories.
Regardless, this hardly indicates a justification for the assertion that the federal governmen intended to be involved in public education. As proof, even though the ordinances set aside lots for public education purposes, the federal government- either under the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution- did not expend any funds on public education. Instead, that was left to the newly formed states to figure out if they so desired. In fact, many states, once formed, did not fund public education either and left it up to the local “townships.” It should also be noted that nowhere in either ordinances is there any mention of compulsory education. Although some states already had it, it did not become a national phenomena until much later.
Furthermore, Jefferson, like others, believed an informed electorate would counteract a tyrannical federal government. What the Post article does not mention is that there was no universal suffrage in 1785 or even after the Constitution was ratified. Hence, the public school set aside of land and no other resources towards public education was clearly intended for future voters. But, the alleged long standing federal involvement in public education is hardly indicative in either the Land Ordinance of 1785 or the Northwest Ordinance.
As for examples of later federal involvement, the proponents are even more off base. For example, the Morrill Act is often trotted out. This law ceded land to many states for the purpose of forming state colleges or universities. Originally, this was proposed by an Illinois Senator in order to create agricultural colleges for research in each state. However, it was Morrill, a Vermont Senator, who first got a bill through Congress that was vetoed by President Buchanan. Undeterred, he made some changes of which the most important was the mandate that these land grant colleges teach military tactics and engineering. Lincoln signed the act into law in 1862 which easily passed the Congress since most of the opposition originally came from the now-seceded Southern states. But it also served an important function to Lincoln- teaching and turning out military tacticians for the Civil War. Furthermore, the purpose as originally designed was not some federal effort to improve public education in the United States but to improve agricultural higher education efforts in certain states.
The same is true of a third line of evidence- the GI Bill. It is said that this law along with the Homestead Act in the 19th century did more to transform America than any other laws in our history. The GI Bill opened the doors of higher education to a huge pool of consumers who normally would not be able to afford a college education. It is an indisputable economic fact that a college graduate attains a higher standard of living and income and all the good things that go along with that than a non-college graduate. Thus, a great proportion of America’s rise as an economic giant- although there was a good template to build upon- and innovator of technology can directly be traced to the GI Bill.
But, again, this law was directed at higher education, not K-12 education. Unlike some of my conservative counterparts, I do not advocate the elimination of the federal Department of Education. I do feel there is a need for it and one of those needs is for higher education. However, this law is not indicative of a federal government commitment to K-12 education in the historical context. Higher education? Perhaps.
So, how, when and why the federal government get involved in K-12 education? The “when” and “how” are easier to answer than the “why.” It was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision that created the federal intrusion into primary and secondary education. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed as the main means to address perceived and actual disparities in education throughout the United States. Through a massive infusion of federal money in the form of subsidies, the federal government hoped to narrow those discrepancies.
As for the “why,” there is a simplistic answer. One can draw an ideological line from Johnson back to FDR to Woodrow Wilson to the late 19th century progressive movement to Marx and Nietzsche to Hegel and Rousseau. One thing that today’s liberals like to gloss over is that this same ideological line also took some detours along the way through Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy…but I digress. FDR cut his liberal teeth in the Wilson administration while Johnson cut his teeth in the New Deal. In fact, Johnson was a New Deal Democrat in every sense of the term. Whereas Wilson’s philosophical predecessors may have laid the groundwork, Wilson laid the ideological groundwork while Roosevelt laid the infrastructure. Johnson was simply the logical extension of this line and created the welfare state that FDR could only dream of and envy. Like any good liberal, he needed a crisis in order to push his agenda. That crisis was created when Oswald pulled the trigger that killed Kennedy. Soon after Kennedy’s death, Johnson was mobilizing liberal forces to push a liberal agenda and remaking of America. The result is today’s welfare state. An intrusion into education was a natural outgrowth of this program. The early progressives were calling for universal, free public education under the guiding hand of the federal government since at least 1890.
Furthermore, the discrepancies in educational outcomes and opportunities were the focus of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. This simply fit into the liberal mantra and created an excuse for federal intrusion into K-12 education. The early attempts at school desegregation were clumsy and often assisted by National Guard troops called in by a Republican president against Democratic state-level opposition, a fact lost on most liberals and the African-American community today and their affinity for the Democratic Party. ESEA sought to correct these ills. In part 1, I noted that when costs are distributed but benefits concentrated, there will be opposition to the program or reform, unless the costs could be proven to have a beneficial outcome for all. That never quite happened in education and things were even worse when forced busing became a reality.
It was Jimmy Carter who eventually spun education off from the massive Health, Education and Welfare bureaucracy by, in effect, creating a new bureaucracy- the current Department of Education- and elevating the new department to a cabinet level position. This was mainly a pay-back to the national teacher unions for their support in the 1976 campaign. Meanwhile, the phrase “welfare” was dropped from the other department since “welfare” had taken on a negative connotation where people saw their taxes going to support a select portion of the population. In typical Orwellian liberal fashion, the name was changed to “human services.”
Since 1980 when the Department of Education came into existence, the department’s budget has increased a whopping 375% spread across a myriad of programs and subsidies. Meanwhile, American students are actually performing overall about as they did in 1969, in some areas slightly better and in others worse. There are two major events that have occurred since 1980. The first is Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative and the second is Obama’s Race to the Top program that will be discussed in the next entry in this series. What we have achieved is a massive educational bureaucracy in Washington DC composed of technocrats. Despite this massive federal spending for minimal gain, the federal government still only contributes 8% towards any school district’s annual budget.
Leaving all these facts aside, assertions that our history shows the federal government somehow has always been involved in K-12 education is patently false. In reality, the system set up by the Northwest Ordinance was more likely an attempt to stop the spread of slavery in these new areas rather than some federal commitment to K-12 education. Until 1965, federal actions in the area of education addressed higher education- not primary education and not secondary education. Instead, the federal commitment to public K-12 education is less than 50 years old. At this point, the best one can say is that it has been a 50 year experiment gone seriously awry.
Next: Five paradigms of educational reform