September 4 2012

Will the Real “Education” Presidential Candidate Please Stand Up?

Vicki E. Alger

Education is shaping up as a leading election-year issue. President Obama and Mitt Romney have differing views on several education policies. Aside from public charter schools, which both candidates support, Romney is much more supportive of a private-sector role in education, according to Reuters. But take a closer look. As Reuters reports:

Romney seeks to encourage - with federal subsidies, when necessary - robust participation from the private sector in teaching American kids and training workers. He would use public dollars to enroll more children in private schools; keep federal aid flowing to private, for-profit colleges; and pay private banks to take over part of the federal student loan program.

Obama, by contrast, has sought to expand government's role in education.

He has directed billions of dollars in federal funds to states that adopted his vision of a revamped kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum, with more emphasis on standardized testing. He has secured billions more in public funding to help states avert teacher layoffs. And in higher education, Obama has expanded federal student aid and cracked down on for-profit colleges that he says leave students with too much debt and too few job prospects.

In reality, both presidential candidates concede a major federal role in education—in particular, funneling taxpayer dollars out of the states, through the federal bureaucracy (especially the U.S. Department of Education), then back again in the form of favored pet projects. Regardless of whether we support any of those particular programs in theory (vouchers, charter schools, and Pell Grants, for example), we need to ask ourselves if it’s really the federal government’s job to make education policy.

Not only is education not mentioned anywhere among the list of enumerated powers in the U.S. Constitution, education is not mentioned at all...anywhere...in the Constitution. It is therefore up to individual states. (The District of Columbia is a unique case where Congressional action regarding education is appropriate, although some of us would argue that DC could do a whole lot better with a different governance model.)

It is entirely consistent with Democratic Party tenets to advocate for a more expansive government role in any number of aspects of our daily lives. In contrast, it is wholly inconsistent with Republican Party tenets, grounded in constitutionally limited government, to advocate for education policies already advancing in the states, inspired by the private sector and the free market, and campaign on subsidizing them with federal tax dollars.

Those who consider themselves Republicans need to reflect on what that term really means. Many self-proclaimed Republicans insist that bigger government is fine as long as fellow Republicans are running things. A variant of this way of thinking is that it’s possible to make bigger government more efficient. Personally, I see no evidence for either belief.

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