Is fighting a declared war in a foreign country more important than fighting domestic illiteracy? Is the creation of post offices more important than the creation of schools? Is funding interstate highway projects more important than funding a national education system?
In each of the previous examples, the former represents an enumerated power granted to the national government by the Constitution. All told, there are twenty-seven enumerated powers – none of them involving education.
Early proponents of a strong central government (the 'Federalists') argued for a system of shared power and dual lawmaking between the national and state governments, all to avoid the tyranny experienced under British rule. The point was to place limits on central authority in order to ensure individual and state's rights.
The number of powers given to the national government in the Constitution pales in comparison to the number of powers reserved for the states, per the 10th Amendment. This is as it should be, and is in keeping with the goal of avoiding autocracy and dictatorship. It is worth noting that the powers given to the national government each involve something of national concern, yet the creation and regulation of schools is not found on that list. Why?
Public schools were virtually non-existent in the US prior to the nineteenth century. At the time of the crafting of the Constitution, education was taking place in the home, not in school buildings. As embodied by the philosophy of "Republican Motherhood", it was viewed as the mother's job to educate her children. Therefore, funding education was simply not necessary - which is why we see no mention of education in the Constitution. Doing so would have been as absurd as discussing the regulation of flying machines or wireless communication devices.
Leaving education to be regulated by the states (and therefore subject to the democratic processes by which most states do business) was a mistake on the part of the framers of the Constitution. Most people would agree that educating our children is just as important as the other enumerated powers. As one of my more perceptive students recently questioned, "Doesn't 'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness' inherently guarantee the right to an equal education?" I think so. For this reason, I support pushes to place education in the hands of the national government - specifically, national standards accompanied by national funding.
The quality of the education one receives should not be determined by the location of their birth. Nonetheless, individuals born and raised in states such as Minnesota are far more likely to receive an adequate education compared to their peers in states like Mississippi, where ACT scores and graduation rates between comparable demographics are considerably lower.
The discrepancy between higher performing and lower performing states is almost exclusively a function of spending – on teacher salaries and teacher training, specifically. In fact, a relatively recent study conducted by respected researcher Ronald Ferguson found that the most important measurable cause of increased student achievement is teacher experience. For many states, offering competitive salaries simply isn’t in the budget; low-performing states are funding their education systems at levels well below those of high-performing states. This disparity is so great, and the numbers so outrageous, that the federal and state courts have been asked (on many occasions) to decide on the legality of such unequal funding.
In total, thirty-one states have seen lawsuits filed to challenge the Constitutionality of their funding schemes – those suits arguing that the inequality of long-standing funding mechanisms constitutes a denial of the equal protection clause of the Constitution (per the 14th Amendment). The courts have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in ten of those cases.
If money does indeed make a difference, then it seems logical that monies be distributed equally in order to ensure that every student born in this country, regardless of the location of their birth, receives an education of adequate quality. I believe that the only way to accomplish this is through the pursuit of national standards accompanied by national funding.
That’s not to say that states should be discouraged from designing unique programs and interventions to meet the standards established by the national government. Certainly, one could argue (as Darling-Hammond has) that leveling the funding playing field is a precondition for genuine state and local control. Nonetheless, states should not be left to determine how their schools are funded by way of democratic processes that almost guarantee that those in the minority are left with the dregs (see previous post, Why Democracy is the Source of Our Educational Inequality).