All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 2001

Federal Control of Education Needed?

Educational Achievement Disparities Are Lower Within the Private Sector

The New York Times recently apologized to readers for its cavalier treatment of the facts in the Wen Ho Lee case. If that editorial failure merited an apology, the Times should be refunding readers’ money for publishing Leon Botstein’s September 19 op-ed on education.

Botstein claims that local control is causing our public-school problems and that we could achieve both equity and improved outcomes by ceding power to the federal government.

Despite acknowledging that his proposal may seem absurd, Botstein makes no serious attempt to defend it. The bulk of his essay is nothing more than a list of criticisms of public schooling, which he follows with a 70-megaton non sequitur: “the solution is a federal system based on national standards and paid for with federal dollars.”

To be fair, Botstein does present one piece of relevant evidence to support his opinion, asserting that “every other developed nation has a national system of education.” The problem with this assertion, as anyone with a modicum of familiarity with international education would know, is that it is patently false. Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia, to name a few, all lack national education systems. In those countries, it is the provinces, the länder, the cantons, and the states, respectively, that are chiefly responsible for education policy.

This gross factual error is representative of the quality of the entire piece. One of Botstein’s first claims is that local government control is the cause of community conflicts over issues like school prayer—a problem that nationalization of schooling will supposedly solve. This notion is utterly contradicted by the historical record. There are many cases in which social conflict over education can be directly attributed to central government control. For generations after the French revolution, for instance, as national power alternated between Catholic monarchists and republicans, the French schools were a constant source of turmoil. Each political group imposed on the schools its own view of a good education, invariably alienating families whose needs and preferences did not conform to official doctrine. The fact that the imposition of authority came from the national government, rather than from a state or local government, was entirely irrelevant.

The national education system of twentieth-century England has similarly led to fierce struggles for control of the government schools. Labor and Conservative governments have pushed and pulled the system all over the pedagogical map, introducing mutually contradictory policies and fomenting an endless series of battles between progressives and traditionalists. Similar pedagogical and structural battles have been waged between Japan’s conservative governments and its socialist teachers’ unions for decades, though these have seldom made headlines in the United States.

If Botstein had acquainted himself with the history of formal education, he would have learned that systems of government schooling have consistently led to social conflicts over curriculum, goals, and methods, whether they have been run locally or nationally. He would also have learned that education systems driven by the unfettered choices of parents have systematically avoided such conflicts by allowing diverse communities to simultaneously satisfy both their varied personal needs and their shared social goals. Historically, it has been the coerced uniformity of state schooling that has precipitated endless “school wars,” and the flexible diversity of education markets that has avoided them.

Equal Educational Opportunity?

Botstein also uncritically embraces the belief that nationally uniform education spending is possible, and that if adopted by the public schools it would naturally produce equality of educational opportunity. Unbeknownst to Mr. Botstein, the evidence decisively contradicts both beliefs. First, truly uniform education spending is not achievable within a free society. It would require the imposition of spending caps on all education-related items purchasable by parents, such as books, computers, tutoring services, and so on. Without such caps, there would always be differences in the opportunities available to the children of the poor and the wealthy. What Botstein is proposing, therefore, is not uniform education spending, but rather uniform public school spending. This, however, would simply have the effect of driving more wealthy parents out of the public school system, exacerbating existing inequalities (unless of course Mr. Botstein plans to outlaw home-schooling and nongovernment schools).

Second, even when uniform spending is achieved within the government’s education monopoly, it quite clearly does not produce equality of opportunity. Far from it. Disparities in educational quality within the public school system, particularly between inner cities and suburban and rural areas, are notoriously large, despite the fact that many urban districts spend upward of $9,000 or $10,000 per student per year (well over the national average of $7,000). Some of the nation’s lowest performing districts, such as Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Connecticut, are also some of its highest spending.

If Botstein had bothered to consult the research on educational achievement disparities between students of different socio-economic groups, he would have discovered a very interesting thing: these disparities are lower within the private sector than they are within the public sector. Research teams such as Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland have shown that racial and economic achievement gaps are actually smaller in independent schools than they are in government schools.

Not content to limit his speculative foray to the field of education, Botstein boldly leaps into matters of constitutional law. His first statement on this new topic is that “contrary to the claims of some, there is no constitutional objection to a larger federal role [in education].” Though I do not profess to be a legal expert, I find it difficult to reconcile Botstein’s assertion with the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states and to the people all those powers not delegated to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution. Since neither the word “education” nor the word “school” appears in the Constitution, there does indeed seem to be an obvious objection to nationalizing education.

While Mr. Botstein may be a fine music conductor and college administrator, it is astonishing that he would choose to hold forth publicly on a topic with which he is so obviously unfamiliar. Perhaps it would be better if editorialists followed the advice given to would-be novelists: “Write about what you know.”

—Andrew J. Coulson
Social Philosophy and Policy Center
Bowling Green State University