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Clinton on Schools

January 10, 1999

Bill Clinton used to enjoy a reputation as a policy wonk, a person who puts political pragmatism and detail ahead of conviction and dogma. But with his State-of-the-Union education proposal, he plunges headlong into hardcore statist ideology. His idea comes down to this: let the federal government have more control over local schools and their services will improve.

Is there an honest man alive who actually believes that? After 50 years of progressively centralized educational control, is there a parent in the land who truly trusts the feds to control their child's teaching? If anything is axiomatic in American politics it is this: the more the feds run the schools, the worse they get.

For 50 years, children have been cruelly used as guinea pigs in educational experiments conducted by the courts, the Congress, and the executive branch. These planners have combined school districts, bused children out of their neighborhoods, imposed far-flung theories of reading and math, paid for a vast and expanding educational bureaucracy, and told parents to stay way until the experiments are over.

Well, they are over and the result has been disastrous. For vast numbers of parents in this country, educating their children isn't simply a matter of finding the right service to fill a need, as in the rest of the service economy. Instead, it is a gargantuan struggle against bureaucracies and special interests. It means moving to the right school districts, fighting the teachers' unions, and worming your way through a system that seems designed to force everyone into mediocrity.

Such problems always arise in public institutions. The producer-consumer relationship isn't the same as it is in the rest of the economy, and public institutions too often squeeze both. But the crucial difference in the postwar period of education has not been the shift from private to public -- that occurred a century earlier -- but from local control to state and then federal control.

Right-thinking conservatives in the late 1970s began to understand this problem, and swore that if a Republican ever captured the White House, the Department of Education would be the first agency to go. Well, it didn't turn out that way, because some wrong-thinking conservatives believed they could do more good by exercising power than by dismantling it.

Here we sit nearly 20 years later with an educational system more controlled by the federal government than ever before. The means of control have been the usual two: coercion and bribery. The coercion has taken place via court-ordered demographic shufflings that keep children and families in constant turmoil. The bribery has come in the form of hundreds of billions in federal aid to education.

In threatening to cut off money to local and state school systems that don't obey Clinton's Department of Education, he is merely calling in the bribes. As Clinton knows, this kind of proposal is tough to argue against. Shouldn't taxpayers get their money's worth? And after all, even if the person who pays the piper doesn't call the tune initially, the piper eventually comes around to favor the tastes of those who pay his bills.

And what tune does the federal government favor? It's a very familiar one. It asserts that all children are equally educable, that imposed diversity is a strength, that children need socialization more than real skills, that educational professionals should have more rights over their subjects than parents, that all teachers should join the union, and that any attempt to chart an independent course must be crushed.

It's hard to believe, at this late date, that there needs to be any discussion about whether these nostrums can really be the basis of quality schools. In every state, we see popular movements working to undermine the influence of social engineers and to restore something of the old idea that education ought to be a local function, controlled by parents and teachers working together.

But when Clinton proposes more federal control, he is careful not to invoke all these tired liberal cliches. Instead he talks about standards, discipline and the basics. Cut away the speech writer's rhetoric, however, and what you have is old-fashioned leftist ideology working hand-in-glove with special-interest politics.

The special interest in this case are the teacher's unions, who know that if they are ever to exercise total control over America's schools, it is going to be by working at the federal, and not the state, level. This is also the basis for his wildly underfunded, mandate-imposing suggestion to hire an additional 100,000 teachers across the country. It's a sop to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, two of the activist groups he can depend on for unswerving political support.

There's a lesson here for conservatives too. Those who have been seduced by the prospect of educational vouchers need to realize that it necessarily means government control over private schools. Voucher-taking schools will, in time, become exact copies of the public schools, and fully roped into the federal educational regime.

Clinton says he will cut off aid to school districts that don't obey him. Fine. Let principled Republicans gut federal educational spending. That's the first step to restoring some semblance of local control, which means a step away from decades of failure.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

See also Rockwell on school vouchers and the Rockwell-Friedman debate on vouchers.


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