Some Constitution Day Reflections about Government’s Role in Education



Today is the 228th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution—not that you’d know it from most news headlines. The big story today is yesterday’s Republican presidential debate. The headline from Politico grabbed my attention for lamenting that education was a “no-show”:

Education didn’t just take a backseat during [last] night’s GOP presidential debate—it wasn’t invited along for the ride. There were zero questions about education over the course of the second, three-hour debate hosted by CNN. And none of the Republican candidates focused on the issue in any substantial way.

Rather than lamenting, we should be celebrating.

Presidents have no business meddling in K-12 curricula through Common Core (see here and here), interfering with parents’ preschool and child care choices (see here and here), or micromanaging our higher education options (see here, here, and here).

The word “education” doesn’t even appear in our Constitution. In fact, during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia Charles Pinckney of South Carolina and James Madison proposed four distinct plans for granting Congress authority to establish a university. They were largely ignored until September 14, just days before the Constitution was ratified, when the delegates denied such authority to Congress by a vote of six to three. In fact, the only recorded words of objection were those of Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, who stated such authority “is not necessary.” Why? Because Americans are capable of meeting their and their children’s educational needs through voluntary associations.

Fast-forward to the twentieth century, and Senator Barry Goldwater explained that “Arizona proudly turned down federal funds under the 1958 National Defense Education Act on the grounds that Arizonians, themselves, were quite capable of closing the [funding] gap.” Rejecting the notion that federal money is “free,” Sen. Goldwater’s fundamental objection was “that federal intervention in education is unconstitutional.” He elaborated, saying:

It is the fashion these days to say that responsibility for education “traditionally” rests with the local community—as a prelude to proposing an exception to the tradition in the form of federal aid. This “tradition,” let us remember, is also the law. It is sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States, for education is one of the powers reserved to the States by the Tenth Amendment. Therefore, any federal aid program, however desirable it might appear, must be regarded as illegal until such time as the Constitution is amended. (Emphasis original.)

It is therefore refreshing that, as Politico put it, education was a “no-show” during yesterday’s presidential debate. After decades of increasing federal overreach in education, Americans are realizing that our Framers were right to leave education to the real experts: parents, who know and love their children best.

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