A couple of weeks ago, on a quiet Saturday afternoon, I reclined on my couch and decided to engage in a bit of reading. Unfortunately, on the top of the stack (and yes, the stack must be obeyed) was a “guidance” document from the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. These guides are designed to inform schools about the official position of the federal government on civil rights issues pertaining to schools. They don’t say you must do this or must do that but the message is clear: take our advice or else. Inasmuch as school leaders feel about the Feds the same way as baby bunnies feel about Rottweilers, we tend to heed the message.
What made these particular directives particularly ironic was that they were issued about two weeks before the eclipse of the Trump Administration and the dawning of Biden. Given the topic of advice — transgender issues including bathroom and locker room usage and participation on gender-specific sports teams — I was reading advice that would be (and now has been) completely reversed in less than a fortnight.
But, relax, I don’t plan to whine about the ambiguity that results from such decisions that are made (Obama) reversed (Trump), and reversed again (Biden.) School officials have a high tolerance for ambiguity. It is just part of the background.
I plan, in fact, to whine about something completely different. Two things actually, federalism and the separation of powers.
In the United States, our government operates through a federal system. This means that some jobs and powers of government belong at the national level and others belong at the state. This works well since some functions are better pursued at the different levels, Defense belongs to the national level. Schools belong at the state level.
Providing a system of schools is arguably the most important and the largest role of state government. If you don’t believe me, notice the lack of any mention of schools in the United States Constitution and the premier spot it takes in all state constitutions. If you still don’t believe, look at any state’s budget. Schools take the lion’s share.
Given that, wouldn’t it be better if educational issues were addressed at each state? Wouldn’t it be truer to our constitutions and our federal form of government? And, fundamentally, aren’t decisions on how to educate children better made at a more local level?
Before I continue, please notice that this critique is not a partisan one. Over the last half-century, congresses and executive administrations led by both parties have trampled upon the federal system as it pertains to schools.
The same is also true of separation of powers. As any high school civics or American government student can tell you, our national government is made up of three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Each has its separate roles, including some checks on each other, and the United States Constitution was written quite clearly to keep the three branches in their own lanes. But at some point in the 20th century, the executive branch began to amass greater power, very much at the expense of the other two, and especially Congress.
Presidential historians refer to this as the rise of the Imperial Presidency. Presidents today routinely take us to war without congressional authorization, for example, and have really hit their stride with “executive orders,” These orders have the effect of law basically sidestep Congress at every point, in part because Congress has lost its jealousy of its own authority, having made partisanship the greater priority.
The result? Correct educational policy is now determined by whomever is in the White House. We have decisions which should be made at the state level (though I would even argue it is better addressed at the local level, which states can and sometimes do) shifted not just to the national level but to one office there, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It is sometimes said today that our young people do not sufficiently understand the principles of American government. True. But to those members of Congress and presidential administrations of recent past and present, I would offer a simple message.
Look who’s talking.