A new California law requiring students to be up-to-date on vaccinations before enrolling in public schools was put into place July 1, and this school year is the first to witness its implementation. This need for children who attend public school to be vaccinated is an example of the state interceding in local authority for the sake of the greater good of the public. In the delegation of authority within a state with regard to education, local school districts continuously adapt to reflect current issues within the district, while the state acts as a constitutional authority on education through the creation of laws and regulations. Legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, and more recently, Common Core, has given the federal government increasing power over education. Thus, what is the relationship between the state and federal government in the authority over educational issues?
In the 1973 Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v Rodriguez, the Court held that there was no fundamental right to education in the Constitution; thus, as demonstrated in cases like Brown v Board of Education and others, states cannot have discriminatory schooling practices, but plaintiffs are limited in their ability to appeal to the federal government for how those systems of education within the states are arranged otherwise.
The constitutionally delegated authority for states to have power over education resides in each state’s constitution. California, for example, explicitly states that a common system of school must exist, and has specific constitutional requirements pertaining to the funding of schools, religious instruction and establishment of higher education. Given that the constitutional authority over education resides in each individual state, and the negative consequences over accountability measures utilized by the federal government in order for schools to receive federal funding, education is best left to be handled and decided on by the states.
Federal policies often link accountability measures to funding sources to ensure that schools are held responsible and that the funding they are given is used for a particular goal. For example, No Child Left Behind, a piece of federal legislation enacted into law in 2002, links standardized test performance to sanctions for public schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress by each subgroup of students based on special needs, minority status, English language proficiency and socioeconomic status. NCLB helped spurn the movement in education toward high stakes accountability testing as a means to make sure schools, and furthermore states, were teaching students what they needed to learn. The belief was that if the federal government tested students and held educators accountable for improving test scores, students’ scores would increase. However, students have barely shown any increase in scores when comparing test scores pre and post NCLB implementation. Yet, both the Bush and Obama administrations have offered federal grants through Race to the Top, Flexibility Waivers under NCLB, School Improvement Grants and various other programs to push states, districts and schools to line up behind policies that use these same test scores in high-stakes evaluations of teachers and principals. These tests are larger indicators of educational opportunity gaps that exist between races and social classes, which can only effectively be remediated at the state level as well. These accountability measures have been unable to effectively demonstrate how they have successfully raised student academic achievement, which was the goal of their implementation in the first place.
Proponents of federal control education point out examples from international countries that have exemplary systems of education thanks to federal control. Countries like Finland, which is consistently ranked as the top nation in the world for education, do boast a heavy federal government presence in schools. However, it is important to note that the success of these other countries are much more heavily related to their distribution of funding, wealth equity, social programs and teacher education programs than the role of the state or federal government in education.
Ultimately, states have the right to set their own learning goals and standards for what they want their students to learn in schools. Furthermore, when the state and local school districts have more authority over education, constituents are better able to vote elected officials out of office if they feel like the official is not appropriately solving educational issues within the state or district. By maintaining local control over education, communities have more of a chance to have a larger impact on schooling, and address their individual students’ unique needs better than the federal government would be able to.
Julia Lawler is a senior majoring in history and social science education. Her column, “Get Schooled,” runs Fridays.