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Sunshine State News: ICUF President- More Innovation in Education, Less Federal Control

Monday, February 25, 2013

You can’t open a newspaper or turn on the news without hearing the words “higher education,” but one place you won’t find those words is the U.S. Constitution.

Actually, you won’t find the word “education” anywhere in there, either. This is because, at the time the Constitution was written, education was not considered the responsibility of the federal government – or state and local governments. Instead, education at all levels was the domain of private institutions.

As decades passed, education became a growing focus of governments. The primary schooling levels were adopted in the 1800s and are now offered by local governments. Over time, federal spending in education has grown exponentially. But, with federal dollars come federal rules, regulations, programs and control. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has driven primary and secondary policy in the U.S. for more than a decade. We are now seeing the early days of efforts by the federal government to increase engagement in higher education policy, largely because our nation is seeking stronger economic competitiveness and improvement of our international standing in education. Policies like those in NCLB are not needed at the postsecondary level. Our higher education system needs innovation and creativity, both of which can be offered best by state governments and, more importantly, by the individual institutions of higher education.

While we know Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution doesn’t mention education, it does enumerate the tasks for which Congress is empowered to legislate. The Reserve Clause provides the states and the people with powers not enumerated. Yet, federal engagement in state education programs was bolstered 178 years later through the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). President Lyndon Johnson lobbied for the bill and allies, such as the National Education Association, supported the legislation. With the passage of ESEA, our nation began large-scale federal funding for education programs and initiatives.

In 1965, education was a part of the federal cabinet agency Heath, Education and Welfare. The U.S. Department of Education (USED) was created during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, after strong advocacy by Vice President Walter Mondale. The newly-minted Department was only a year old in 1980 when Ronald Reagan campaigned on a platform that included abolishing the Department altogether. The philosophy espoused then was that education was an issue best left to the states to control. The Department was never abolished and actually grew during the Reagan administration and has continued to grow. In 1980, the Department had a budget of just over $14 billion. More than three decades later, the 2012 USED budget has burgeoned to $68 billion – with $41 billion allocated for Pell Grants alone in postsecondary education, funding nearly 9.5 million students.

Since 1980, state and national perspectives on education have changed. In Florida, we expect $2.4 billion to be allocated toward Pell Grants in the upcoming fiscal year. But, as mentioned earlier, with federal spending also comes federal control and efforts to set policy. It is good, however, to always be mindful that the funds that flow from Washington came from the citizens of each state and the Department in large part serves as a conduit for returning funds back to the state’s citizens. Even with that in mind, we now see federal efforts to engage in setting standards, fiddle with costs, create national “scorecards,” and to try to manipulate what students take, how the credits are given and how does all that link to expected workforce needs. One can expect an increasing push by federal government authorities to either force or entice institutions to build programs of expected need in the expectation that students will follow.

One envisions a “Field of Dreams” strategy, as if building targeted education programs not driven by the market will magically serve as a magnet for student preferences. This task is best left to the states and to local institutions which know their own markets best and can build quality programs to best serve students in their area. States are also more likely to allow market forces to play a major role in the creation of high-quality college programs.  Florida is capable of serving as an ideal laboratory for educational innovation. Florida and its families know what is best for our students. Our institutions of higher learning already work closely with business and industry. We can always improve, but more control from Washington is not the answer. We need to allow our market-driven Florida economy to work – and it will, if it has the freedom to do so.

Dr. Ed H. Moore is president and CEO, Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.

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