Almost everybody admits that the American school system underperforms. “Reform” is almost universally prescribed as the solution. But in other walks of life, bad ideas are not reformed—they are eliminated and replaced with better ideas.

Our school system is rarely identified as the bad idea. The system is reflexively left undisturbed while the methods — the bad ideas — get cycled in and out: open concept schools, multiple intelligences, project-based learning, universal design for learning, merit-based pay, vouchers, charters, and most recently, educational neuroscience. Every decade or so, the pedagogic experts tell us they have found the solution.

The trouble is that they’re looking right past the problem.

The root of the problem is that the concept of “schooling” has gained a monopoly over “education.”

There is an important distinction between those two terms.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 97 percent of kids go through traditional schooling (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling), and just over 90 percent of those attend government schools. That is to say, there is basically one accepted way to educate kids today: school them.

Given the relatively poor performance of American students on international achievement tests, you would think schooling might get a second look.

Quite the opposite.

Instead, the government makes it mandatory and forces taxpayers to subsidize it. Public education proponents call this an “investment.”

OK, let’s look at the return on that investment.

Divestment Not Investment

Contrary to what proponents of public education tell you, the U.S. education isn’t broke. In fact, the system is flush with cash. And yet it generates very few positive results.

Take New York City for example. The state was front and center in the reform battle during President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT) initiative. Leading up to the controversial dash for cash, the city had been experiencing an education system overhaul, including battles over charter schools. It was a knock-down fight featuring New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, his Board of Education chief, Joel Klein and the powerful unions. The state was seeing an infusion of Wall Street cash backing charters, which were being throttled by state Democrats and union bosses. In addition to the almost $700 million in RTT funds and the $61.4 million spent at the state level, the city of New York saw millions of dollars invested from groups like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

So, what was the result of these “investments?”

According to Cornell University’s NYC Education Data program, less than half of all eighth graders in the state are proficient in English language arts and math.

We see similar results across the country. A 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation Development report reveals just how far behind American students are falling. The average score for 15-year-olds in math, language and science on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test for the US was 470. Only students in Mexico (402), Chile (423) and Turkey (420) had lower scores. Thirty-one other nations scored higher than the U.S., with Japan leading the way at 532. This is just a snapshot of the poor performance in our modern schools.

The American “schooling” system yields educational results that are clearly a failure. So, what should our education model look like?

The Subsidiarity Model

Almost all directives, curriculum and resources in education come from the federal level and filter down through the states. Common Core is just one example.

Common Core was intended to create nationwide education standards. While touted as a state initiative through the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the U.S. Department of Education was heavily involved behind the scenes. Initially, the DoE tied the grant of waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act to the adoption of Common Core, using the standards as powerful strings to influence state education policy. The Every Student Succeeds Act passed by Congress in 2015 prohibited the DoE from attempting to “influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards … or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States.” ESSA gives more latitude to states and local school districts in determining standards, but the feds still maintain significant control over state education systems. States are required to submit their goals and standards, along with a detailed plan outlining how they plan to achieve them to the DoE for feedback and then approval.

Without federal approval, states risk losing significant amounts of federal funding. This carrot keeps states in line and enables the feds to maintain significant control over state and local school systems.

This top-down approach has led us to the fiasco that we experience today. So how do we take back our schools?

The answer is simple; we don’t!

The current system is broken. Finding new people to run it won’t change that. The “one size fits all” approach leaves everyone involved frustrated and worse off. Instead, self-directed options are optimal, such as the Sudbury model or unschooling. To truly reform education, we suggest implementing the subsidiarity model in educating our children.

The subsidiarity principle is simple; nothing that can be done at a lower political level should be done at a higher political level. Obviously, this is the complete opposite of how we address education today. Critics will claim that there must be a central authority to direct people on what to do and how to act, but that is precisely the problem.

Subsidiarity absolutely could and should be applied to educating our children, highschools and universities alike, no one should be left behind, there are even instances of where veteran admissions advisors are required, when veterans should have all the rights and ease of access to study in the world. We learn at the most basic level; the family unit. We learn some of life’s most important skills, like speaking, walking, socializing, etc., all without state-directed standards. In fact, we learn them from interacting with others in our family and local environments. It is feasible to continue that educative process on to learning how to add, subtract, write a sentence or solve a world problem.

What if there is an issue that cannot be solved at the family unit? What if mom and dad do not know how to analyze the works of Shakespeare or teach you how to solve inequalities? Under the subsidiarity model we would look to the next smallest unit. In this case, that might be your local neighborhood, township or county. This idea has already been implemented in homeschooling communities through co-ops; groups of families from a local area coming together to help educate children in a diverse manner. Only in very rare exceptions would we need to go to the state level for guidance and even rarer, if ever, to the federal government.

Final Impact

Governments cannot mandate education; it can only mandate that you go to school. This is why so many people remain essentially uneducated after 12 years of schooling. Schools are great for government and it’s not surprising politicians support them. But if one were to list each of the most effective functions of a school, education would not even make the top 10. The current system breeds failure.

There is no perfect formula or scenario in educating a human being, but perfection is not our aim. We believe radical decentralization will serve as a better, if not the best, option for educating our youth. It would require an engaged citizenry and would force people to take on more responsibility. People couldn’t just turn the keys over to the government and say, “Here, educate my child.”

If we are to return power to the people of this country and take it out of the hands of Washington D.C., this would take a great first step.

Justin Spears co-wrote this article with Mike Margeson. Mike is a high school social studies teacher in Indiana; he has 15 years experience in the classroom. He holds a Bachelors in Political Science from UC Irvine and a Masters from Butler University in Educational Administration.  He is currently working to co-author a book with Justin; “Failure: The History and Results of a Broken School System.”

Justin Spears
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