The case for educational federalism: protecting educational policy from the national government's diseconomies of scale.

Author:Hills, Roderick M., Jr.
Position::Symposium: Educational Innovation and the Law

There have been reform committees of fifty, of sixty, of seventy, of one hundred and all sorts of numbers that started out to do up the regular political Organizations. They were mornin' glories--looked lovely in the mornin' and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin' forever, like fine old oaks.... The fact is that a reformer can't last in politics. He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business. You've got to be trained up to it or you're sure to fail. (1)


In a federal system, which level of government--federal, state, or local--should pursue educational innovations? And should the level of government affect how aggressively the innovators proceed? It would be folly to insist on clear and rigid answers to such general questions. But I will press the less risky (and, therefore, less interesting) position of a weak presumption: the higher the level of government pressing the innovation, the stronger the presumption that the innovation should be modest. Moreover, the national government's intervention ought to be geared towards promoting an otherwise voiceless constituency's political participation, not towards promoting a particular policy prescription.

My argument for this modest national role is rooted in tempered optimism about what I shall call "stably governed households" and pessimism about the federal government's capacity to improve household decision-making. Both the pessimism and optimism spring from the same source--the enormous and undiversified stakes that stably governed households have in both their children's education and the value of owner-occupied residential real estate. These stakes suggest that there are few scale economies in K-12 education that cannot be realized by subnational governments. Even the most capably governed households need help from larger-scale governments, but subnational governments are, for the most part, equal to the task. Moreover, the reasons for giving deference to stably governed households in their educational decisions also suggest deference for subnational governments, because the latter tend to be more firmly under the control of the former than higher levels of government.

Household autonomy, in short, implies federalism. The national government's role can be limited to supplementing households' and subnational governments' incentives where educational programs have spillover benefits not captured by parents and homeowners and where, as a result, subnational government will tend to under-supply the good in question--for instance, military science (e.g., West Point) or aid to the indigent (e.g., Head Start).

On the pessimistic side, I will suggest that the national government does not have a good track record of mobilizing households that lack stable governance to provide political support for its educational programs. Where the beneficiaries of federal educational programs have been stably governed households--for instance, family farms or children with learning disabilities--then those beneficiaries control the program and maintain its funding. Unlike stably governed households, however, households headed by indigent or single parents do not have the organizational capacity to mount strong political support for federal initiatives. Federal reforms for the benefit of these households are, therefore, perpetually at risk of being overwhelmed by ethnocultural divisions or cartels of educational providers--the same forces that stymie educational equality at the subnational level, but, at the federal level, further aided by the unwieldy bicameral and presidentialist legislative process that mires the national democracy in perennial gridlock.

National interventions to promote educational equality, therefore, face a paradox of what Paul Peterson has called the mismatch between "functional" and "political" federalism. (2) If the federal government focuses on its functional advantage of aiding constituencies that subnational governments neglect, then the federal reform may lack sufficient political support. But, if the federal government broadens its mandate to pursue generalized reforms of the K-12 curriculum, teacher evaluation, or testing of students, then they diffuse their revenue and regulatory effort in fixing that which is not broken--the subnational educational system catering to stably governed households. Worse yet, such federal reforms might break what does not need to be fixed, by eroding school districts' reliance on local political networks and own-source revenue, characteristics that make those districts responsive to the demands of stably governed households. Uniform testing mandates or teacher evaluation standards may also provoke a backlash from middle-class suburban households who find federal reforms--for instance, testing mandates or curricular standards--to be a gratuitous impediment to what they regard as well-functioning schools.

Like Plunkitt's reforming "mornin' glories," reformers are not likely to have staying power unless they can find or create some "machine" with the political capacity to carry on the reform after the federal reformers have lost national power. Federal educational reformers, therefore, might be best advised to focus on the political over the technocratic: they might concentrate less on pedagogical reforms best designed to induce educational achievement and more on fostering subnational constituencies that will sustain federal reforms through the vicissitudes of national politics. Rather than anxiously specify pedagogical programs ("portfolio schools," KIPP, Successful for All, etc.) to see which offers the best hopes for an upward tick in standardized test scores, reformers might instead focus on cultivating a constituency of grateful low-income parents by giving them the incentives and political skills to fight for their own educational interests. The ultimate goal should be to transform the beneficiaries of federal action into a constituency with the same political clout as the stably governed households that dominate subnational government. Otherwise, federal educational policy may become a recipe for policy-making ADD--in Charles Payne's pungent phrase: "so much reform, so little change." (3)


    One can usefully think of households in which the households' owners also jointly raise children residing in the households' property as consumer cooperatives specializing in the management of childrearing services and residential real estate. Two-thirds of American households actually own the real estate that they occupy, (4) but even the remaining third that rents their housing must manage their leasehold by negotiating a price, monitoring the use of utilities, dividing up cleaning chores, making furnishing decisions, allocating living space, and fulfilling payment responsibilities. Likewise, while under three percent of families with children "home-school" those children, (5) a far larger percentage of households actively manage their children's education by making the fundamental decisions about where to live (and, therefore, where their children will attend public school), how to intervene in PTA or school board elections, and how to encourage homework and studying. Finally, households' transfer of wealth to their children is simply staggering, constituting, by some measures, a majority of total social wealth. (6)

    How well do these consumer-cooperatives perform in child rearing? (I'll defer the question of real estate management and its relation to education for Part II.). In general, as I explain in more detail in Part I.A, stably governed households have such a good track record in, and such good incentives for, effective child rearing, that governmental officials would do well to treat their decisions as presumptively serving the best interests of their children.

    This presumption does not mean that households do not sometimes fail. Even the best governed households face collective action problems requiring help from officials at a higher level of government, and a substantial number of households collapse from internal disagreements, corruption, or incompetence. For these household problems, as I explain below in Part I.B, some sort of governmental intervention is required. I reserve for Part II the question of which level of government, national or subnational, is best suited for coming to households' assistance.

    1. The Case for Governmental Deference to Stably Governed Households

      By "stably governed households," I mean a special subset of all households in which two adults jointly own and manage their common living space and also jointly act as guardians for children residing on the premises. (7) These specially defined households are stably governed in that (a) the co-owners of the household own the real estate and other resources needed for the children as an undivided commons, (b) either law or strong social norms or both discourage unilateral decision-making by either of the pair of owners regarding the household or children, and (c) exit is discouraged through social norms as well as the division of pooled assets regardless of initial contribution. (8)

      On this admittedly sketchy definition, the substantial majority of children in the United States continue to be raised within stably governed households. Two-thirds of all children are raised by two married parents. (9) To avoid misunderstanding, I emphasize that marriage of the households' co-owners is neither necessary nor sufficient for that household to be stably governed: in theory, any two persons who have pooled resources and impeded their capacity to exit from the common child-rearing enterprise can qualify as stably governed by my definition. In practice, creating such households through contract is rare and, in...

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