Sen. Ted Kennedy got a lot of laughs at a 90th birthday party for Democratic wise man Averell Harriman. Ted toasted the diplomat and said, “Averell, you are only half as old as Ronald Reagan’s ideas.” President Reagan responded good-naturedly: “Ted’s right. I get all my ideas from the Constitution of the United States — which is just about two hundred years old.”
Various scholars have noted that Ronald Reagan quoted the U.S. Constitution and the Founders more than all four of his predecessors combined. That’s an amazing fact. What’s even more amazing, and rather disheartening, is that he probably quoted the Constitution and the Founders more than all four of his successors combined.
No better example of this can be seen than the 1989 National Education Summit, held in Charlottesville, Virginia, 20 years ago. President George H. W. Bush had promised to be an “education president.” He called all 50 state governors to meet with him at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia to work out a national education strategy.
No more un-Jeffersonian idea could be imagined. The Founders were very concerned about executive usurpation. They wanted “energy in the Executive,” in Hamilton’s famous words. But they did not want education presidents, or welfare presidents, or health care presidents. They made the president commander in chief so he might “take care” to enforce the laws, defend the nation, and secure the borders.
Nothing in the Constitution that George Bush had just pledged to defend authorized him or the state governors to work out a “national” education strategy. Many Beltway pundits, of course, cheered President Bush’s initiative. David Broder, the dean of Washington columnists, said the “education summit might actually boost [the] nation’s schools.” Some liberals, however, had already adopted in 1989 what would be their never-ending mantra. Phil Kuntz wrote in Congressional Quarterly: “Bush puts Focus on Schools with Words, Not Money.” For the next 20 years, there would never be enough money. Double, triple, quadruple federal education outlays, their cry would still be: More.
In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush’s campaign team compounded his father’s error. They stripped from the Republican platform the 20-year-old Reagan plank that called for the disestablishment of the U.S. Department of Education. Gov. Bush’s team wanted to appeal to suburban voters and soccer moms, we were told. Once in office, President George W. Bush accelerated federal intrusion into state education policy. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was determined, it seems, to leave no liberal behind. The law — which has become hugely unpopular — has been described as 90 percent Ted Kennedy, 10 percent George W. Bush, and 100 percent wrong.
I am not saying there is never a place for federal action in education. Segregation in public schools is an obvious injustice that cried out for too long for redress. But legal segregation might have been ended without such massive federal intrusion into state and local affairs. We needed a surgical response and not a blunderbuss attack on state and local authority.
Apart from requiring school buses to be painted yellow, can anyone cite a single improvement in American education brought about by federal intrusion into state and local matters? We sent a man to the moon with a decentralized education system.
The most successful education innovation of the past 20 years has been the growth of homeschooling. This growth has proceeded in spite of rather than because of federal intrusion. The second most promising innovation was the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship program. But President Obama finally found a federal program he disliked.
Conservatives should back measures to return the resources and the power to local communities. We should promote federal and state tax measures that allow parents to choose safe and effective schools for their children — be they homeschools, public schools, private schools, or charter schools. Parents should be free to choose.