January 11, 2005

Defending Federalism

Ramesh Ponnuru ably takes on William Stuntz's argument that conservative legal theory is unconservative. But I'd like to add one point.

Stuntz writes:

Public employees' unions tilt to the left -- and those unions find it much easier to capture local agencies than national ones. In America, teachers' unions have a hammerlock on big-city school systems. The best way to break their hold is to ally the federal government with the market -- holding urban schools to higher standards and giving vouchers to parents when schools flunk the test. That won't happen if federalist judges bar Congress and the White House from doing anything about education. Constitutional federalism is a large gift to the NEA.
In practice, this assessment is simply wrong. The NEA lives off of federal education legislation-- its magazine for members is almost a monthly cover-to-cover rant against No Child Left Behind. In fact, federal-level school reform unites teachers' unions with the states-- their adversaries in negotion over state-level reform-- against Washington. Indeed, much of the need for a National Education Association stems from the existence of federal education policies; it's reasonable to suppose that affiliated unions might be more flexible to reform if the national leadership, and its lobbyists, were less politically important.

The fact that NCLB is a pretty bad piece of legislation further underscores the superiority of federalism in education policy: 50 laboratories are better than one. By most accounts, the school voucher programs in Florida and Wisconsin work much better than the one in Ohio. Does it really make sense to count on Congress to get it right for the whole country?

Posted by John Tabin at January 11, 2005 02:18 PM