by Michael Maharrey

No area of life cries out for local control louder than the education of our children.

With a vast diversity of student populations, learning styles, cultural makeup, socioeconomic demographics and countless other factors, it only makes sense that local people, who understand the needs of the community, make decisions on how to educate their kids.

But as in most other areas of life, politicians and academic elites think they know what’s best, and they utilize the mechanisms of the federal government to centralize, standardize and homogenize education all across this vast and diverse nation.

In 1979, Congress created the Department of Education, a blatant overstep of its authority. The Constitution grants the federal government no power to regulate, oversee or take any role at all in education.

Zero. Zilch. Nada.

It doesn’t even hint at it. Can anybody argue that teaching children falls into sphere of responsibility that James Madison assured ratifiers the Constitution left to the states?

“The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.”

But wannabe education central planners ran over Constitutional constraints like a beat up pickup truck rolling over speed bumps in a Walmart parking lot.

At the time, even some Democrats recognized the overreach.

“No matter what anyone says, the Department of Education will not just write checks to local school boards. They will meddle in everything,” Patricia Schroeder (D – Colo.) said.

Call that woman a prophet.

On Jan. 8 2002, Pres. George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law. The sweeping program created national education standards and made federal funding contingent upon states meeting the central planners’ educational goals. It’s the classic carrot and stick routine. States don’t have to participate – unless, of course, they want that federal money. It’s a play for pay scenario.

Like pretty much every centralized bureaucratic solution ever conceived, NCLB counts as a miserable failure. Instead of encouraging states to educate their kids, it encourages them to figure out how to cheat the system so they can keep their snouts in the federal feed bucket.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch eagerly embraced NCLB in the early days. Now she’s not so keen on the program.

“It turns out as a result of putting so much emphasis on the test scores, there’s a lot of cheating going on, there’s a lot of gaming the system. Instead of raising standards it’s actually lowered standards because many states have ‘dumbed down’ their tests or changed the scoring of their tests to say that more kids are passing than actually are,” she said in a March 2010 NPR interview.

Director of the Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom observed the same phenomenon.

“What’s to stop an endless cycle of setting high standards that produce low scores, gradually dumbing the standards down to give the illusion of progress, and then resetting them to a high level again when the deceit is discovered?” he asked in a July 2010 post. “At any stage of this cycle, officials can claim that students are showing improvement or that steps are being taken to raise standards — without any need to, you know, improve the schools.”

And schools are not improving.

Experts say the National Assessment Long Term Trends tests provide the best indicator of educational performance in the U.S. Despite billions of dollars spent, and ever increasing federal oversight throughout the last decade, overall achievement showed only modest gains in math and a paltry three point improvement in English.  Science scores fell. In fact, educational achievement in the U.S. remained  basically stagnant over the last 40 years.

Two states say they don’t plan to play anymore.

South Dakota and Idaho both recently informed the feds that they will not raise student proficiency requirements next year, as mandated by NCLB.

They are not asking for permission. They are not asking for a waiver. They simply told the feds that they plan to move forward with their own programs.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last month, indicating the state will implement a new statewide accountability system to measure its students’ progress. The federal benchmarks simply aren’t working for the Gem State.

“The law has become a stumbling block to continued improvement in raising student achievement,” Luna told the Idaho Statesman.

Luna said the state will focus its attention on the academic growth of its students instead of worrying about passing a federalized test.

“We don’t have the luxury of time and resources to continue on with the federal law that should have been rewritten four years ago,” he said.

South Dakota Education Secretary Melody Schopp announced schools in that state will also ignore next year’s federal standards.

“Without making these changes, we believe our accountability system, as it currently stands, would inappropriately label schools as failing. This situation would eventually trigger a number of NCLB-related sanctions that our department simply does not have the capacity to address,” Schopp wrote to Duncan.

Sioux Falls Superintendent Pam Homan applauded the move.

“I commend Secretary Schopp for her courageous leadership on this issue. I am grateful South Dakota’s secretary of education is making a clear statement in support of our children, teachers and administration. In my opinion, it is simply a crime to negatively label children for life on a system with arbitrary benchmarks and no value for the individual progress of each child,” she said in an email to the Argus Leader.

The positions taken by Idaho and South Dakota doen’t exactly represent a principled stand for state sovereignty. Both education secretaries want NCLB reformed, not scrapped. But the dilemma forcing these two states to defy the federal mandates illustrates the complete failure of the system and the unworkable nature of top-down, homogenized solutions. We’re educating individual children, with individualized needs,  not some amorphous uniform collective.

“It’s dumb,” Tenth Amendment Center founder and executive director Michael Boldin said. “And it leads to mediocrity. One size fits all education standards do nothing but ensure most everyone ends up with a substandard education. Those that need something more get held back and those who need something slower-paced find themselves flunked into oblivion. The only ones who benefit are the middle-of-the-road. Do we really want to settle for average?”

Perhaps unwittingly, Idaho and South Dakota have taken a bold stand for state sovereignty. They chose to stand up for their children, instead of blindly submitting to unwarranted federal overreach. Perhaps other states will follow suit.

They should.

And maybe, just maybe, states will ultimately stand up and demand that the federal government completely butt out off education, a role left to the states and the people.

For good reason.

Mike Maharrey