Federalism and Education: A Primer

By David Paitsel

The concept of federalism – the division of power between the national government and the states- has devolved in recent decades to academic theory; a relic from the political philosophy of a bygone era barely acknowledged as an ideal, let alone a reality.

Most, to the extent they give it any thought at all, regard federalism not as a feature of American government, but as a bug – an obstacle to be overcome.  In a country with a national media, the concept of local control can seem anachronistic.  Local control, for most people, might be fine for zoning ordinances and traffic lights, but when local problems and tragedies receive national media attention, the natural inclination of people who want to help is to impose national solutions.

Whether it’s something as acute as a mass shooting at a music concert in Nevada or as chronic as poverty in the inner city, people look to the national government for answers – because the problems seem national in scope.  Questions about whether that action is appropriate seem academic at best and heartless at worst.  Questions about whether that action is effective are for someone else to figure out…later.

Politicians know this.  Most congressmen will readily violate stuffy principles about federalism and separation of powers in exchange for good press and votes.  They want positive reinforcement.  They want to appear effective.  Campaign ads about new laws that impose higher standards on schools, for example, improve their chances of re-election far more than doing nothing because education is matter properly left to states and local school boards.

State governments are not immune, either.  To most of you reading this, this may seem like an obscure, boring issue – but Pennsylvania, where I live, ranks in the top 5 states for reliance on local revenues for education, primarily raised via the property tax.  Businesses and home owners bristle at paying it, and it can be a hardship on elderly homeowners on fixed incomes.

State politicians, who have done much to force local districts to raise taxes by saddling them with huge state pension costs and unfunded mandates, see an opportunity to play hero by eliminating the property tax.  Whatever the details, proposals in the Pennsylvania General Assembly invariably involve Harrisburg taking control of school funding and distributing state tax money to the districts according to various formulas to ensure “fairness,” which means, in politician-ese, directing money to districts with the largest concentrations of votes and campaign donors.

They never propose anything that empowers local government, such as opening new revenue streams to school districts, reducing costs, or realigning financially failing districts.  Those things are dull and lack the political punch of  campaign ads about taming out-of-control school boards officials who raise taxes every year, and they don’t provide additional funds to Harrisburg politicians to redistribute for votes and political favors.

The same phenomena exists on the national level, where we get spending programs that never die, a massive regulatory state, mandates on state and local governments, and federal overreach into areas of life unthinkable by previous generations.  Every issue is a national issue demanding a response from the national government in Washington, DC.  Elections are life-and-death apocalyptic struggles between good and evil because the national government has so much power, the prospect of it falling into the hands of the opposing party is cataclysmic disaster.  Even worse, we get $20 trillion in debt, an amount so large it outstrips our gross domestic product.  We couldn’t repay it even if we confiscated every US dollar in circulation.

Is there hope for those of us who believe government causes more problems than it solves, that national power should be reserved for national issues, that local problems are best solved by local governments, and that states are the proverbial laboratories of democracy where innovation should be free to succeed or fail?

Probably not.

Both political parties in America seem hostile to federalism except when it’s politically convenient.  Modern Democrats are avowed leftists who believe in centralized power on principle, Republicans are in the thrall of white nationalists who see the national government as a bludgeon to punish their enemies and reshape the nation in their image, and the Libertarians are a fringe party that few take seriously.

Since there is no ready-made political movement we can latch onto, the best we can do is demand a modicum of responsibility from politicians.  You want universal health care?  How are you going to pay for it?  You want huge tax cuts?  How will you fill the hole in the budget?

To do that, we need citizens who are informed and engaged…and willing to reward politicians who make unpopular – but responsible – decisions, which brings me back to education and the issue of school funding in Pennsylvania.

Education is at the core of our democracy, and it deserves better than to be treated more seriously.  It shouldn’t be a political football, and it deserves to be treated more seriously by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Too often, we hear only about the problems in our public schools.  The hard work and success stories often go unnoticed.  Most teachers care about education.  They want to do a good job, and they want their students to succeed.  Even in an era of stifling state and federal regulations that enforce uniformity, teachers and administrators in districts across the country innovate – where they can – to improve education, especially for those kids who need extra attention and help.

There are problems districts, to be sure, especially in poor areas – but I firmly believe the solving those problems means empowering state and local officials to create local solutions – and giving voters something to hold them accountable for.

We have to find the best ways to educate our children, and that means allowing – and encouraging – ideas to bubble up from the people closest to the work.

Federalism has to start with education.  If we fail in this, it really is all over.

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