Another Cut at Federalism

Former U.S. Education Department staffer Mike Petrilli has a penetrating analysis of current Secretary Arne Duncan’s attempts to circumvent the states and work directly with school districts. Duncan, Petrilli notes, is using the federal stimulus money to side step state governments and federal programs that aren’t in sync with his own ideas for reform.

As Mike notes:

But what’s perhaps most significant is the Superintendent-Secretary’s approach to states. For decades, governors have been seen as major drivers of education reform. But now, rather than expecting states to lead, Duncan is asking them to get out of the way. This can be glimpsed in two important developments. First, the Secretary made it clear that states will have almost no discretion over the spending of stimulus dollars, which will go out via formula to the districts. And second, he put governors on notice that, if they want some of his $5 billion “race to the top” fund, they are going to have to strip barriers to local reform out of state law, such as charter school caps or rules disallowing districts from using student achievement data to inform decisions around teacher tenure.

This is troubling not just for education reform. It represents an ongoing effort among pogressives to diminish the stature and role of the states. In short, it undermines Federalism. The system of Federalism created by the Founders was intended to give specific duties and responsibilities to federal and state government so they could serve as a check on each others’ authority. By working directly with local governments, which are creatures of state government, federal policy further erodes the authority of state and weakens their ability to provide that critical check on power.

We’ve already seen this happen in housing and in mass transit. Education will be another venue by which the federal government will expand its role at the expense of state and local governments.

More insight on Federalism can be found at the American Enterprise Institute’s Federalism Project.

More of Reason Foundation’s work on education reform can be found here.

Mike Petrilli is a Vice President at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, DC.