The Camel's Head in the Tent

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In politics the greatest evil often comes from sources people least suspect. Conservatives and Republicans, for example. They are now responsible, through the most sly and underhanded means, of putting the federal government in charge of certifying the rigor of the nation’s public high schools — an unprecedented power grab.

These are the people who say they want to reduce government control over the country, they trust the people to manage their own affairs, leave matters to the states, and the rest of the malarkey we’ve been hearing for about sixty years.

But you can say that poison is apple juice and it will still yield death. And the latest offerings from this conservative Republican administration could certainly mean that for American education.

The evil originates with the Republican Senate, in a 774-page education bill that slathers another $3.75 billion on the public education sector.

The spending is not the news. Everyone knows that the government taxes us for innumerable purposes in the guise of improving the quality of our lives but only ends up feeding bureaucracies and special interests, and contributing to the problem instead of the solution.

Nor is it news that this is a step up in federal spending on education (once solely a concern of the states and localities). The presidency has racked up a frightening spending record in every area of life.

The statist project is inconceivable without control over education, so it is no real surprise that Republicans have fallen in love with the Department of Education that they once promised to abolish. An administration that thinks wiretaps and torture are an essential part of a sound national defense would never let the people control their own educational institutions.

Even so, even for an administration and party intoxicated by the exercise of imperial power, this is a new low. The measure gives $750 to $1,300 of your money to “low-income” freshmen and sophomores who have completed “a rigorous secondary school program of study” and even more to those who major in math and science.

That is to say, the feds will pay people to attend public schools they consider “rigorous.”

They say that they will begin with half a million kids. For starters!

Ah ha, so who precisely is to say what constitutes a “rigorous” program? Something such as the wonderful institutions that have educated our nation’s illustrious bureaucratic class that manages our lives so well? Yes, perhaps that rigorous: it will be the permanently employed staff of the Department of Education.

What matters is not their definition, actually, but their control. For the first time in the country’s history, we are going to do it in the Napoleonic style: we will have the central government dictating to the nation’s high schools, deciding which are worthy and which are not.

Oh yes, the mandarins at the Department of Education will “consult” with the governors and the teachers lobbies and various education panels — that means not you! — about what this means. In fact, what this creates is a kind of Flexner Commission for high schools, precisely like that monstrous turn of the previous century effort to cartelize medical schools, which set us on the path to high prices and socialized costs in medical care.

And yet, Ms. Sally Stroup of the Education Department assures us that this is not, repeat not, “an expansion of the federal role.” How interesting that she would so opine, since it so clearly is an expansion. It’s true that the schools themselves can decide not to seek the fed’s imprimatur, but that would mean losing money to others.

Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education is exactly right: this is a proposal to turn the Department of Education into a national school board. The bureaucrats are already assembling their armies to come to your local high school to administer strict oversight.

It is also intriguing that the legislation seems to leave private schools and home schools completely out of the picture. The legislation says that the receiving students must be part of “program of study established by a state or local educational agency and recognized by the secretary.”

Not that private schools and home schools should aspire to be on the take. They shouldn’t. But a program like this, on the margin, makes it even more difficult for them to attract students. Not only are the public school students getting free tuition but now the government is even willing to pay them to go to school!

And what is the idea that the federal government should be subsidizing math and science specializations, as if it and not individuals in the marketplace know best what skills are needed in society? Has anyone done any math and science testing on the Senate itself?

There are two priorities in education right now: one negative and one positive. On the negative side, we must stop federal intrusion, end the subsidies and school socialism, and arrest the tendency toward dictatorial control.

On the positive side, we should roll back control to the lowest possible levels, privatize public property, repeal regulations, scrap compulsory attendance laws, and free the market.

Unless I’m overlooking something, no other agenda has a prospect for success, not vouchers, not another school reform, and certainly not appointing the federal government as Headmaster in Chief of the nation’s high schools.

This bill isn’t legislation yet. The Republican House has to sign on, but it will. For this means more power and money and control, and that’s always and everywhere what the government wants, and will get unless the public resists.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com and author of Speaking of Liberty.

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