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How Trump’s Executive Order Can Fix Ronald Reagan’s Education Failure


Donald Trump managed to find America’s pulse during his campaign on a low-key issue that nevertheless is definitive to America’s longevity as a freedom-generating nation: education. Of high-profile Republicans, he was one of the few to blast Common Core and vow to “restore local control” to American schools, and through the only mechanism that makes that truly possible: parent choice. As president, he reiterated that promise, and last week signed an executive order that aims to begin fulfilling it.

I’ve got some bad news: That’s nowhere near good enough. Truly restoring parent control over education requires Congress to cut the U.S. Department of Education and relinquish the power they have seized from parents and local communities and given to bureaucrats, a promise Ronald Reagan also made as a presidential candidate but left unfulfilled due partly to staff treachery at a key moment in history. His failure allowed America’s education to metastasize, eroding Americans’ capacity to govern themselves through robust character and careful analysis.

Americans have long trusted Democrats far more on education than they do Republicans. Perhaps that’s because Republicans typically offer the same old soft Bolshevism without all the fluffy clothing. They drone on and on about forming our kids like widgets in a corporate machine and fine-tuning percentage points on teacher pay scales. They tell us their five-inch-thick education “reform” bills, laden with dozens of refunded garbage programs and dictatorial control still preserved for federal bureaucrats, diminish “the national school board.” Puh-leese. At least Democrats burn our public education dollars without hiding their glee.

The situation is dire. But there are some constructive things the Trump administration can do to better their odds of ending the education monopolies at the root of widespread public dissatisfaction and ideological indoctrination of American kids.

Let’s Start With that Executive Order

The federal government’s method of securing power over local schools by taxing citizens, then offering their money back if states follow the ignorant orders of politicized and distant bureaucrats, is illegitimate, unconstitutional, and makes Americans dumber. Like the rest of the administrative state, it’s destructive of self-government and government by consent, which is every American’s birthright.

That said, I believe in respecting and working within existing culture and systems. The prudential question is how to accomplish as much good as possible given the obstacles at play. The BHAG is to shift the window of what conventional wisdom says is possible, which Trump has already shown he’s more than capable of doing.

So I don’t think Trump should ignore the laws that direct his administration to keep running programs that waste children’s minds and taxpayers’ money. Instead, his administration should demonstrate to lawmakers and the American public why they should consent to ending all the idiotic things the federal government does in education. His administration should also take care that any resulting policy changes are prudently carried out to prevent backlash from poor execution.

Intelligent use of Trump’s executive order can further that end. The order, even just as a rhetorical document, is good and strong, although it also reveals Congress has bound the administration’s hands in many respects from restoring self-government in education to the people:

It shall be the policy of the executive branch to protect and preserve State and local control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, and personnel of educational institutions, schools, and school systems, consistent with applicable law, including ESEA, as amended by ESSA, and ESEA’s restrictions related to the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The Secretary shall examine whether these regulations and guidance documents comply with Federal laws that prohibit the Department from exercising any direction, supervision, or control over areas subject to State and local control, including:

(i)    the curriculum or program of instruction of any elementary and secondary school and school system;

(ii)   school administration and personnel; and

(iii)  selection and content of library resources, textbooks, and instructional materials.

DeVos will find that yes, the U.S. Department of Education is forced by law to break older laws that aim to restrict the federal government from telling schools what and how they must teach. Her own department was originally approved on the promise to the American people that it would not interfere with freedom of thought and instruction, and it has repeatedly and systematically broken this faith. It has done so, for example, by telling states what tests and curriculum mandates they are allowed to have, and how they must train and certify teachers, and by funding particular curricula and tests (including the national Common Core tests).

Americans don’t want the feds doing this, and central planning education only deforms the American character and intellect because centralization always increases costs and reduces quality, as well as eviscerates self-government.

The Results of This Order Can Inform Needed Legislation

That is Congress’s fault, and Congress must fix it. In the Bush presidencies, particularly, Congress and the president were prey to the folly of thinking that the federal government would stay within arbitrary limits once unleashed to meddle in states’ affairs. Even before the U.S. Department of Education formally existed, the feds were transgressing this boundary they themselves set up for their education activities, as I found in researching my recent book. Since the federal government has never obeyed its own boundaries for its education activity, it’s time to stop trusting it with power over schools.

The U.S. Department of Education is set up to fail, because it operates on principles antithetical to human nature. These include the famous information problem of economics and social science, which finds that the people closest to a situation are the best-situated to manage it, because they have the best information about its circumstances.

In schooling, this means parents and teachers, with preference for parents, who are the closest people to a child and the ones with the deepest natural motivations to secure him the best advantages possible. Of course, there are exceptions, but on average, parent knowledge will soundly trounce federal bureaucrat knowledge about what a particular child needs. A federal bureaucrat can’t even name all American children, let alone know how to educate them. Pretending this rule of nature doesn’t exist gave us, among every other bad education fad in history, Common Core.

Don’t Repeat the Failure Cycle for Another Generation

Understanding this reality is crucial to making wise education policy decisions. Despite prominent Republicans’ statements otherwise, federal mandates continue to enforce Common Core, among other meddlesome indignities. Trump needs to address this to fulfill his campaign promises. Common Core propagandists are telling policymakers otherwise to preserve their power after the American people rejected their craptastic product.

States may have renamed Common Core, but almost all of them still use it. Here in Indiana, where we supposedly kicked the thing, schools are still using Common Core lesson plans, instruction, textbooks, and tests. And part of the reason is federal mandates. As former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman commented:

ESSA requires ‘State academic standards [that] are aligned with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the system of public higher education in the State and relevant State career and technical education standards.’

This is a double-speak for Common Core. Neither Race to the Top, nor NCLB Flex waivers [the mechanisms Obama used to impose Common Core on the nation], ever required ‘Common Core.’ Instead, they always used a similar stand-in of ‘Career- and College-Ready standards.’

Education, perhaps more than any domain except business, is stuffed with puff pastries. It’s fine if people want to fill their own heads with junk food, but not when they want to seize federal power and taxpayer money to force it on American children. The surest way to prevent dominating others for private gain is to eliminate the “one ring to rule them all” that enables it. Hey, maybe that’s why the Constitution doesn’t give the federal government authority over education in the first place!

DeVos’s inquiry, if it is tough and honest, will bring such pressure points to light. Her own department has for years released research showing many of its leading programs are completely ineffective and have been so since spawning. Time for all those monsters to come out of the closet and be buried six feet under with a stake through their hearts. Make Congress defend funding, to the tune of trillions, programs that repeated studies have shown benefit cronies at the expense of Americans.

The DeVos report that fulfills Trump’s order could counterpoint the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report that scholar Vicki Alger shows was a deliberate attempt to bait and switch the Reagan administration into not only reversing the president’s promises to end the Education Department, but turbocharging that dead-weight department’s power. The department’s slated layoffs could assist. Dream big, Madame Secretary! The four in five Americans who don’t want the federal government determining what kids learn are already dreaming with you.