Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Federal Education, Cordell Hull, and States Rights

I am reading Cordell Hull's Memoirs. This is the last major work I plan to take notes on before starting on the final draft of The U.S. War Against Asia. I knew little about Cordell Hull except that he was Secretary of State under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which meant he played a major part in the events leading up to the Battle of Pearl Harbor. This just illustrates how even history buffs like myself tend to think in terms of Presidents, when actually Congress is the body that is entrusted to govern our nation. Problem is, there is a lot of history, so it is a lot easier to remember the names and actions of a few Presidents, rather than the tens of thousands of citizens who have been elected to Congress since 1776.

Cordell Hull was from a Confederate family in the hills of eastern Tennessee, and he took an interest in politics from an early age. He reports:

"It was at that age, and at Celina, that I saw my first daily newspaper. This was the Nashville American. In that year, 1886, a Senator from New Hampshire, Henry W. Blair, introduced a bill for Federal aid to State education. That was the major issue in the 1886 campaign. I read about it avidly in the newspaper, and we discussed it among ourselves. The bill was considered to be an attempt to infringe on State rights and to give the Federal Government power to go down into the States and interfere with their education systems. The amount of Federal aid the Senator proposed was only nominal at the time, but the incident is illustrative of how serious such issues could be in those days." [Memoirs of Cordell Hull, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1948, p. 17-19]

The U.S. Constitution says nothing about education. It is a fair argument that for a very long time education was a matter reserved to states and localities. On the other hand, the Constitution says nothing about education. It does not explicitly say that Congress can't spend money on education.

I don't know the full history of federal funding of education. Aside from research grants to universities, I believe Head Start and the School Lunch program were among the earliest large scale programs. Head Start was authorized in 1964. But the School Lunch program was initiated much earlier, in 1946. Federal money for school lunches for children from poor families would not, in itself, have any effect on how local schools were run, like the curriculum or teaching methods. It was not even used as a wedge to desegregate (black and white) schools.

I was on a local school board for 7 years, and I can only describe federal funding of public schools as a mixed blessing. The amount of "paperwork" involved, mostly computer work now, was staggering. The federal money was not just targeted, in the sense that it could only be spent on one type of thing (hence the paperwork to prove that). It often brought rules with it that were really unrelated to the cause for which the money was given. This included the school lunch program. Do this, don't do that, or we will take the school lunch money away.

I'm not sure how effective the federal rules are, including No Child Left Behind. Intentions, I think, were good. It just is not possible to legislate good behavior of students, parents, or teachers (or school boards, for that matter). I used to joke that my School Board should just pass a resolution that "All children in the district shall behave all the time." Like that would put an end to our discipline problems. Behave, Suzy, or we'll send you to detention at the White House Oval Office. Fail to read at grade level, and the First Lady will read with you at night when you would rather be playing video games.

I believe that, on the whole, schools would be better off if they were governed by local school boards using local (including statewide) funds. Sure, some districts would be poorly governed, but most would not, and none of them would be stuck with federal paperwork and misguided guidelines. The main problem with the all-state and local solution is that not all states and localities have healthy economies that can easily support good schools. You can see how a collapsing rust belt city, or a poor rural area, would be unable to provide good schools with local funding. Worse, anti-tax states and localities might refuse to raise taxes needed to fund good schools, even though their economies were strong enough to support the additional taxation.
Leaving this educator, on the whole, feeling that we need a more pragmatic approach to funding.

Those who believe in the wisdom of a national education system should work for an amendment to the Constitution that would give Congress the power to run or at least oversee the public schools of the entire nation, using a federal tax base. Those who want a states-only education system should try to pass an amendment to forbid the federal government from interfering with state education systems.

The rest of us should aim for excellence and hope to muddle through. Send federal money, not a complex set of rules and regulations that take up too much teacher and administration time. Increase the local tax base for public education. Focus, district by district and school by school, on what (and who) works. Some things may work in every district in America, but a lot of actions need to be district specific, school specific, even child specific. Large bureaucracies can have their beneficial moments, but they are notoriously bad at dealing with rapidly changing specific situations.

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