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Education Notebook on Education

March 2, 2005

March 2, 2005 | Education Notebook on Education

A Word to the New Federalists

A Word to the New Federalists

March 2, 2005

Kids know that their weekly allowance comes with strings attached, which means that getting the money is a chore-literally. Such is the relationship between the federal government and states when it comes to federal education funding. Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and other education programs, funding from the federal government to the states comes with conditions. It always has, and it always will.

Nevertheless, some state legislators and special interest groups are chafing under the strict requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which requires annual improvements in student achievement and sets standards for teacher qualifications. And some states are making their displeasure known. Utah's House of Representatives, for example, may soon turn its defiance-defiance, that is, to NCLB's conditions, not the extra funding-into law. State Representative Margaret Dayton has introduced a bill that would effectively allow Utah to receive federal funding without having to comply with the rules that come with the money. She hopes that "we won't be jeopardizing our (federal) funding if we don't live the letter of the law."

Utah's semi-revolt coincides with a new report by the National Conference of State Legislatures that criticizes NCLB's stringent requirements. Hitting hard with 10th Amendment arguments, the NCSL report argues, "[T]his assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state innovations and undermining many that had occurred in the past three decades."

After echoing complaints of many of the law's critics, NCSL recommends conducting "a study of whether the law is an unfunded mandate." But they're a year late. Last year, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office determined that NCLB was not an unfunded mandate. According to GAO, "[I]f the requirements on nonfederal parties arise from participation in a voluntary federal program or are a condition of federal financial assistance, as was the case with No Child Left Behind, those requirements are not considered federal mandates under UMRA."

The truth is that No Child Left Behind is voluntary. States can opt out as they please, forgoing the law's requirements-as well as its funding. But despite persistent grumbling, no state has withdrawn from NCLB. So it's probably nearly not as bad a deal as its critics make it out to be.

Keep in mind that federal funding represents only 8 percent of the $500 billion that the nation spends on public schools.

States like NCLB's extra money just fine, but they don't like the chores that come with it. This explains critics' new-found federalism. Many of those who now wave the federalist flag opposed past efforts to give states greater flexibility.

For example, where were today's "new federalists" when conservatives in Congress pushed for Straight As, a proposal debated during ESEA reauthorization that would have brought an end to the law's stifling rules, regulations, and paperwork and allowed states to negotiate individual contracts with the Department of Education? Most of them opposed the proposal.

And where were the "new federalists" when conservatives pushed for the elimination of the Department of Education? Without the Department, states could do as they please. If Congress reduced taxes an amount commensurate with the Department's funding, the states could choose whether or not to raise that revenue themselves and, if so, spend it on their own priorities. No surprise, the "new federalists" were opposed. In fact, several still cite the proposal as proof that conservatives lack compassion for children.

Once upon a time Republicans were not the only ones concerned about federal intrusion into education. "A national Department may actually impede the innovation of local programs as it attempts to establish uniformity throughout the nation," said then- Representative Joseph Early, a Massachusetts Democrat, when President Carter created the Department of Education. Sound familiar? A foreshadowing of a recent report, perhaps?

Then as now, funding comes with strings, and cash requires chores. You can't have one without the other. States will have full authority over their education systems when they no longer look to Washington, DC, for funding.

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