George Will wrote an excellent op-ed today regarding No Child Left Behind (NCL.  I’m sure there are people at the Fordham Foundation ranting in the halls about his use of their Proficiency Illusion paper to bolster an argument about getting the federal government OUT of education (as opposed to their preferred solution of national standards).  However it got me thinking yet again about the conflict in my mind over local control.

I have some seriously libertarian political leanings.  I think the government tries to do too much, sticks its nose into way too many things it has no business in and does most of what it does badly.  So I have long felt that any government intervention in education, an area specifically excluded from federal control, is a bad idea.  NCLB is just the latest and worst of those interventions; in K-12 they date back to the Elementary and Secondary Schools act in 1965.  Educational needs have always been best assessed by those closest; the parents and the community.

I’ve been questioning that for the last couple of years however.  Mobility is a key aspect of modern society.  Cheap air fares, cheap long-distance/cell service and web cams have made it far easier to pack up and live anywhere.  My mother lived within 100 miles of where she was born until she was in her 60s, when she moved to Florida to retire near all the people she had grown up with.  I, on the other hand, have lived on both coasts and many places in between.  I have needed to be competitive in markets from upstate NY to San Francisco at the height of the tech boom. 

Now, I was lucky.  I went to a suburban middle class school with good scores, a strong program and parents who believed in the need to go to college in order to make it in the world, even if you didn’t move away.  The curriculum set out by my community was strong and full enough to make me competitive.  But I realize that not everyone has that type of background.

Then again, not everyone moves either.  My brother still lives within 10 miles of where we grew up and will never leave.  The 1980 census found 63.9% of people living in the state of their birth.  In 1990 it was 61.8%.  By 2000 that was down to 60%.  Certainly a downward trend, but still not a majority.

To me the only good argument for national standards and anything OTHER than local control of education stems from this mobility idea; that we are no longer functioning as a confederation of states and have truly evolved to be a single entity more than anything else, where our citizens will need to function in an economic and political  environment that requires consistent knowledge and skills.

But those numbers above say something different.  In 2000 60% of the country lived within the state of its birth.  These people could have moved the day before the census or 20 years before.  So are we right to get the federal government, an inefficient behemoth of an institution, involved in something that at most benefits  40% of the population (and as I am proof, probably quite a bit less)?

For that matter, if we DID take the feds out of the picture, would it result in some states making their standards even LOWER or would we see competition between states to provide a better education for their students…. 

I have to agree overall with Will; Nothing good comes from federal involvement in education and a LOT of bad comes from it.

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