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Federalizing Public Education
Villanova Law Review (2010)
  • Thomas Kleven, Thurgood Marshall School of Law
This article assesses the case for federalizing public education in the United States. The starting point is a conception of democracy I call equitable sharing, meaning that the goods of social life must be equitably distributed among all society’s members. I argue that equitable sharing mandates society to ensure that all children have access to a relatively equal educational opportunity—i.e., a comparable opportunity to advance educationally as far as their abilities, interests and willingness to strive allow—at least through elementary and secondary school. To set the stage for discussing the merits of federalization, I examine various models through which society might promote comparable opportunity. These range from total public provision in a government-run school system that all children are required to attend, to total privatization with no government involvement other than a requirement that parents educate their children, to several mixed public/private alternatives including the parental prerogative to opt out of the government-run system and educate their children at their own expense, government subsidization of the education of children whose parents cannot afford it under an otherwise totally privatized system, and government provision of vouchers that parents can use to educate children publicly or privately as they see fit. I conclude that under egalitarian social conditions all the models might produce relatively equal educational opportunity, and that none are likely to do so under inegalitarian conditions although a government-run or voucher system would likely be more nearly comparable than total privatization. I then discuss in the abstract three models for the provision of education in a federal system: total national responsibility, total local responsibility, and a mixed bag with the national government responsible for some aspects of education and local governments responsible for others. I conclude that under egalitarian conditions either national or local provision may yield comparable educational opportunities, but that under inegalitarian conditions the case for federalizing at least some aspects of education in order to promote comparability becomes stronger. Finally, I examine the implications of the foregoing discussions for the United States. Given the highly inegalitarian conditions prevailing here, I conclude that the principle of equitable sharing requires government provision of education. And given the inequalities among the states and among localities within the states, I conclude that the federal government must assume some responsibility for the provision of education in order to promote comparable educational opportunity. Assuming that a universal voucher system will not be adopted in this country and that most children will continue to attend public schools, I examine three models: full federal financing of the existing state and local government system, federal financing plus the federal takeover of the states’ primary role in superintending a decentralized system of local school districts responsible for day-to-day management pursuant to federal standards, and total federalization of both the financing and operation of a national public school system. I conclude that at a minimum full federal financing of public education seems necessary, and that whether a more intensive federal involvement is necessary is an open question depending on the relative effectiveness of the various levels of government in administering the other aspects of public education.
Publication Date
Citation Information
Thomas Kleven. "Federalizing Public Education" Villanova Law Review Vol. 55 Iss. 2 (2010)
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