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Opening Arguments

School bells

I like some of the things mentioned by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett that have been done to help the state better compete for a share of the federal Department of Education's $4 billion "Race to the Top" education grant program -- not putting a cap on charter schools, for example, and removing a roadblock that prevented teachers from being judged on student achievement. I just wish he didn't sound so enthusiastic about getting all that federal loot, perhaps $250 million or more:

Our reform efforts already under way closely mirror the pillars of Race to the Top, because they have been crafted with the goals of increasing accountability, freedom and competition in our schools to increase students' academic achievement," Bennett said.

[. . .]

State Department of Education spokesman Cam Savage said Indiana school districts will likely have the option to opt out of any programs that are funded with the competitive grants if they do not agree with the plan's goals.

Our goals and those of the federal government may be compatible now, but what if they aren't in the future? We'd still be tied to federal means and federal ends and federal rules. And it's all very well to say districts can opt out if they don't agree with the goals, but that sort of glosses over the appeal of easy money. Sure, there are strings attached, but those strings don't seem so bad, you know, and we could do so much with that funding.

The principles of federalism -- careful allocation of power to the appropriate level of government -- are still valid. It's still a bad idea to let the national government muscle its way into something that has traditionally been a state and local concern. That was true when it was Republican George Bush and his misguided No Child Left Behind, and it's still true when it's a Republican education superintendent clamoring for Democratic administration dollars.

I want to be enthusiastic about all of this, but the alarm bells are going off.