What’s Wrong with American Education?

Both George Bush and Al Gore spent much of their respective campaigns talking about what they would do as president to “improve education.” Bush promoted a 10-year, $47 billion federal aid package — including a “teacher protection act” to shield teachers from lawsuits when enforcing classroom rules — claiming the nation was in the grip of an “education recession.”

Al Gore touted his plan to “invest” $170 billion over 10 years, including providing universal preschool for those as young as three years old. Gore's proposal included national testing as a way to demand accountability from states, schools, teachers, and students. Accountability to whom? Why, the federal government, of course!

A little reality check is helpful here. On May 4, 1980, President Carter signed Public Law 96-88, creating the Department of Education. Since then, despite a 250% spending increase (in constant dollars) per student, SAT scores have fallen nearly 100 points. Further, schools have seen dramatic increases in student drug use, teen-age pregnancy, and classroom violence against both students and teachers. American students lag far behind their international competition.

Thus, the candidates' views on increasing the role of the federal government in education can only be characterized as, to quote Samuel Johnson, “the triumph of hope over experience.”

Government is a necessary and venerable institution; without its proper functioning, our safety and happiness are unattainable. To the extent it preserves order and the rule of law, it should be dear to the heart of every American. But, as British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott has observed, governing should be a specific and limited activity, and its functions restricted within a defined sphere. To the extent government tries to do everything, it will do nothing well.

Our federal government's restrictions are spelled out in the Constitution, which mentions not a single word about education. This was no oversight but an intentional limitation on the central government's authority.

In their wisdom, the Founding Fathers knew that educating children is not a matter for the federal government, but rather a local concern. The closer schooling is to the local level, and even more fundamentally to the family, the better the results that will be achieved.

The truth is that the practice of educating children is not that complex a task. Our country did an exemplary job of it for more than 200 years before succumbing to the notion that “experts” were needed to accomplish it. Scholastic achievement was superior and the tone of our culture higher before the Department of Education ever came to be.

Today, some of our best-educated young people are the products of home schooling. This May, home-schoolers won the first three places in the National Spelling Bee, after placing second and third in the National Geography Bee. All across the country, concerned mothers armed with nothing more than a McGuffey's Reader, a Ray's Mathematics, and a Harvey's Grammar can give her child better schooling than what passes for an education in the public schools these days.

Even greater numbers of well-educated students come from the private schools, primarily Catholic, where teaching techniques have changed little over the past hundred years. What is required to teach children is patience, discipline, persistence and a strong moral philosophy. Noticeably lacking from this list is “help” from the federal government.

There is no correlation between the amount of money spent on education and its quality. In fact, the opposite may be true. As former Secretary of Education William Bennett related in his best-selling book, “The De-Valuing of America,” when the principal of one of the nation's highest-achieving public school districts was asked how he was able to get such favorable results, he answered, “Well, we don't have much money for a lot of the new methods, so we just teach the basics.”

As with all assistance from Washington, the problem with big spending proposals is that where federal money goes, federal control soon follows. This is not the paranoid fantasy of anti-government zealots. It is the iron law of governmental authority.

Education, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, should remain the province of local control. Involving the federal government in our children's schooling translates into trading a little of our freedom for a little of their money. It’s a bad bargain. Americans would be wise to look this Trojan horse in the mouth.

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