Federalizing Education: A Jeffersonian Critique

David Marion

October 1, 2010

The state of the U.S. education system is one of the “hot” topics of the fall season, and for good reason. Restoring the competitiveness of America’s high tech economy as well as the fundamental soundness of the country’s social institutions, essential to protecting long-term economic and security interests, depends on restoring the competitiveness of the country’s schools. Among the many challenges faced by partisans of education reform, perhaps none is greater than resisting the appeal of top-down, skills-oriented reforms that abstract from the kinds of “cultural” considerations that informed so much of the work of Founders like Thomas Jefferson.

Leading Founders understood that decency and competence in a rights-oriented republic are directly dependent on the character of the citizenry. They understood that even the best of institutions will not make up for a citizenry that is deficient when it comes to critical character traits. Jefferson was particularly assertive about the connection between proper habits and opinions and a healthy democratic republic. His carefully crafted writings on education are worthy of the attention historically given to his labors on the Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom.

Briefly summarized, Jefferson believed that a democratic system of education must be so contrived as to cultivate in the people the traits and skills that are essential to personal achievement and self-government, to include the capacity “to calculate for him[self], and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing; to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; to understand his duties to his neighbors and country;… to know his rights; [and] to exercise with order and justice those he retains….” To achieve these results, Jefferson called on Virginians to embrace a decentralized system of education that would attach the private interest of each citizen to the functioning of local schools.

For Jefferson, a decentralized system of education turns out to be good not merely for personal development and democracy, but also for efficiency. In one of his last letters, Jefferson reminded a friend that “if it is believed that… elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council… than by the parents… it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further, and… commit to the governor and council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores.”

Civic engagement and personal accountability as well as communal self-reliance, not deference to central authorities or dependency on the governance of experts, were for Jefferson absolutely essential to creating the proper cultural underbelly for a constitutional republic that values liberty and individual dignity.

Jefferson did not believe that democratic societies are necessarily decent or successful. He did believe that human beings understand the connection between rights and duties, especially within their own communities, and that decent and competent democracies are eminently achievable. Organizing human actions in a manner that puts self-interest to work for the common good, in part by allowing persons to become real stakeholders in community projects and to enjoy the fruits of their labors, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to having a defensible democratic society; enlightened self-interest, one of the great benefits associated with communal interaction by Alexis de Tocqueville, is critical to having such a society.

At the same time that Jefferson’s thoughts on education supply valuable insights into the connection between public education and constitutional republicanism, they also provide an interesting vantage from which to evaluate the “quiet revolution” in education that is being advanced by the Obama Administration and especially Secretary Duncan of the U.S. Department of Education. This “revolution” is designed to strengthen America’s schools by inducing states and localities to accept federal intervention and national standards. The goal in many respects is to take “No Child Left Behind,” a Bush Administration program, to the next level.

The fact that the federalization of education has been embraced by Democratic and Republican administrations is not surprising given both the number of “failed” and “failing” schools across the United States and the eagerness with which states and localities pursue federal grants and subsidies (so-called “free money”). Economists, however, are accustomed to reminding us that there are no free lunches.

From the point of view of parents who have lost faith in local officials and teacher unions, Secretary Duncan’s strategic plan may appear to be highly attractive. That his proposals have elicited a generally favorable response is not surprising. After all, the collective failure of state and local officials to protect the integrity of America’s schools is a matter of public record. If we factor in Jefferson’s criteria for a culturally vibrant and defensible democracy, however, Secretary Duncan’s pitch for greater federal intervention begins to look decidedly problematical.

A productive national conversation on the subject of education necessarily must pay attention to existing systemic deficiencies, institutional as well as financial. If we are serious about preserving the long-term health and competitiveness of the constitutional republic that the Founders entrusted to our care, then such a conversation also must pay attention to the social and cultural effects of federal displacement of local control over, and accountability for, a wide spectrum of activities, including education.

The federative republic established by the Constitution was never intended to be valued for itself, but only as a means to promoting a beneficial way of life for the American people. Economic security is one characteristic of that way of life, but only one. Jefferson understood that there are many parts to a way of life that advances the dignity of a self-governing people, and that a country’s education system must be attuned to the entirety of that way of life to be defensible. Serious participants in the national conversation on education would be well advised to apply strict Jeffersonian scrutiny to Democratic as well as Republican proposals that promote increased federalization of education.

David Marion is Elliott Professor of Government and Director of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.