Column: Education is an important element of our democracy

Q: What does the U.S. Constitution say about education? A: The Constitution is very specific regarding the powers enumerated to the federal government. The 10th amendment expressly states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Con...

Q: What does the U.S. Constitution say about education?

A: The Constitution is very specific regarding the powers enumerated to the federal government. The 10th amendment expressly states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” There is no mention of education.


That’s not because the Founding Fathers didn’t value education. On the contrary, they knew that a well-educated citizenry is an essential prerequisite for self-government. Rather, our federal system of government intentionally leaves many of the most important decisions that impact the lives of citizens to a level of government as close as possible to those who are affected, and where government isn’t absolutely necessary, in the hands of individuals and families.  The founders of our 240-year-old republic recognized that limited government “of, by and for the people” empowers the individual to pursue “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”



We’ve seen that a lot can go wrong when government gets too big for its britches. As with many sweeping reforms sought by big government enthusiasts and big spenders in Washington, one-size-fits-all mandates and policy prescriptions are ill-suited to serve the needs of 320 million people spread across the 50 states. The same goes for the three million people living in Iowa, including nearly 500,000 K-12 school students.  Nationalizing health care and federalizing education undermine competition, choice and accountability, for example.


Opening the federal tax spigot invariably leads to bigger, unwieldy bureaucracies that only grow bigger and more removed from understanding the individual needs of hard-working families. As for federalizing education outcomes, the good intentions of the No Child Left Behind law revealed just how challenging it is to identify and implement sweeping achievement standards for millions of students attending schools in thousands of classrooms across the country. So last year, Congress updated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act to restore local decision-making to better serve students and empower educators in their own classrooms. The federal law’s renewal expands flexibility for states to foster local control and collaboration among educators, parents, school board members and school administrators to tailor education policy that fits the needs of students in their local schools and communities.


Keeping education policy squarely in the hands of locally elected school board members, teachers who know each student by name and with parents who care most about their child’s education is not only constitutional, it’s also the right thing to do. Keeping education decisions close to home is the most effective, accountable way to ensure our youngest citizens receive the education they need to reach their full potential and become productive contributors to society.

Q: Were you surprised by the public reaction and feedback regarding the new U.S. Secretary of Education?

A: First of all, it’s good to see people participate and voice their views on issues of the day. It’s not only a First Amendment right; civic engagement is a fundamental responsibility for self-government. When it comes to policies that affect one’s children and neighborhood schools, it’s a very good sign that people are paying attention.



However, it also became clear that many people were led to believe that the nominee, Betsy DeVos, is on a mission to destroy public education in America. That’s not the case. Some of the residual hard feelings post-election filtered into the debate for her nomination, as well as other nominees for the president’s Cabinet. A lot of misinformation generated a lot of inaccurate assumptions that Secretary DeVos would take actions that she has neither the intention nor the authority to take.


Secretary DeVos has long advocated for equal opportunity for all school children to receive a quality education. Like previous secretaries of education, she supports charter schools - which are public schools - and has worked to help low-income families access educational choices routinely exercised by wealthier families. Still, most kids in Iowa attend traditional public schools that do a great job for most kids and those schools aren’t going anywhere. What’s more, Secretary DeVos appreciates the limited role of the federal government when it comes to education.


Starting with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the federal government began to provide a limited amount of funding targeted toward additional assistance for disadvantaged students. What started as just a funding stream based on children in poverty developed into a tangled web of federal requirements that followed those funds. In the Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress reduced the strings attached to those federal funds and strictly limited the Secretary’s authority.


The other main federal role in education stems from the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution. In 1975, Congress passed what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act on the heels of federal civil rights court cases on behalf of students with disabilities who were denied a proper education. It established that public education systems must provide a “free and appropriate public education” regardless of a student’s disability.  Today the federal funding stream provides less than 10 percent of the total funds spent on K-12 education. The lion’s share of education dollars for K-12 students are raised by state and local governments. And the decision-making process regarding how to spend those dollars is best made locally among parents, educators and elected stewards of the public purse.

During Secretary DeVos’ tenure at the federal Education Department, I will continue my longstanding practice of nonpartisan oversight and use my authority to ensure that education laws are properly implemented without federal overreach. In the meantime, I encourage Iowans to continue your advocacy and support for strong schools in local communities across the state. Make your voices count where the rubber meets the road in local school board elections, which are often overlooked despite the direct impact they have on local schools.



During my 99 county meetings across Iowa each year, I look forward to my open forums with school students. I like to encourage interest in civics education, and I’m always glad to answer their well-informed questions. A good education paves the way to prosperity and good schools boost community vitality. Education is a strong part of our state’s heritage, and I’ll continue working to support local control of our schools for generations to come.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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