A common mantra amongst advocates of public schooling is the need for government control over the education of children in all schooling settings. The same mantra emanates from many scholars who claim no bias for or against State-run schooling, or for or against free home-based education. Yet, where, if anywhere, is evidence on which advocates of government control base their call for State control?
One should consider just two compelling areas of research information that undermine the call for State control of children’s education. One is addressed in Dr. Charles Murray’s recently penned piece entitled “Do We Need the Department of Education?” [note 1] Based on three criteria, his is a pithy and logically sound answer to his article’s question. The first question he asks is, “Is the Department of Education constitutional?” In a nutshell, no. Dr. Murray writes:
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the things over which Congress has the power to legislate. Not only does the list not include education, there is no plausible rationale for squeezing education in under the commerce clause. I’m sure the Supreme Court found a rationale, but it cannot have been plausible.
His second question is, “Are there serious problems in education that can be solved only at the federal level?” His answer is, maybe, for things like ending racist segregation in public (State) schools. But one would not need a federal Department of Education but rather perhaps only a federal court decision.
Dr. Murray’s third question follows: “So what is the federal government’s track record in education?” Simply put, he finds the data answer it this way – not very good. He takes a look at federal academic achievement data and finds:
The bad news is that the baseline year of 1978 represents the nadir of the test score decline from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Probably we are today about where we were in math achievement in the 1960s. For reading, the story is even bleaker. The small gains among fourth graders diminish by eighth grade and vanish by the twelfth grade. And once again, the baseline tests in the 1970s represent a nadir.
A more careful look at one state, Iowa – that has had very stable demographic conditions over the past 70 years and used one standardized test for over 50 years – reveals more bad news associated with federal involvement and control over education. Here is how the scholar puts it:
What the data show is that when the federal government decided to get involved on a large scale in K-12 education in 1965, Iowa’s education had been improving substantially since the first test was administered in 1942. There is reason to think that the same thing had been happening throughout the country. ….. American education had been improving since World War II. Then, when the federal government began to get involved, it got worse. I will not try to make the case that federal involvement caused the downturn. ….. But this much can certainly be said: The overall data on the performance of American K-12 students give no reason to think that federal involvement, which took the form of the Department of Education after 1979, has been an engine of improvement.
Now to the second area of research evidence regarding government control and whether education is generally improved by it. A nationwide study by Ray and Eagleson carefully scrutinized the relationship between the college-admissions (or college-aptitude) SAT scores of students who were homeschooled and the degree of state regulation of homeschooling. The SAT scores of homeschool students from low-, medium-, and high-regulation states were first compared for states whose degree of regulation had not changed for the 10 years preceding and including the year of SAT testing.
Simply put, there were no significant differences between students’ SAT scores in the three groups (of degrees of state regulation of homeschooling) for any of the three test scores (verbal, math, and total). Further, In all cases, the states with the highest degree of state regulation had the lowest average SAT scores.
Does either of the two areas of research above substantiate, “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” that government control of education harms or does not help students. No. The more important thing to consider, however, in a free nation that has a Constitution as its highest law is that the two lines of evidence show no positive association between government control and children’s learning. Further, there is even some evidence of a negative correlation.
Policymakers ought to think twice, or more, and consider solid research evidence and constitutional theory before attempting to lay more controls and regulation on any schooling choices, especially private and free ones like parent-led home-based education.
Brian D. Ray, Ph.D.
National Home Education Research Institute
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1.Murray, Charles. (2012, January). Do we need the Department of Education? Imprimis, 41(10), retrieved February 27, 2012 from http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/archive/issue.asp?year=2012&month=01.
2. Ray, Brian D., & Eagleson, Bruce K. (2008, August 14). State regulation of homeschooling and homeschoolers’ SAT scores. Journal of Academic Leadership, 6(3). Retrieved February 27, 2012 from http://www.academicleadership.org/1511/state_regulation_of_homeschooling_and_homeschoolers_sat_scores/.
NHERI, PO Box 13939, Salem OR 97309, USA