The Impossible Dream of Federalized Education

On pure policy terms, I like the idea of federalizing education spending, as Felix Salmon.  It will almost certainly result in more educational equity, a good thing in and of itself.  In terms of knock-on effect, it’s definitely a good thing that federal money usually comes with strings attached.  It is unlikely to affect states like Massachusetts that take education seriously already, and seems like a good way to prod Mississippi and Alabama in better directions.  It is unlikely that Deep South state governments will take a deep interest in the education of poor black children without an awful lot of federal coercion.

That being said, I worry that the political economy of federalized education spending is unsustainable.  Property taxes are an inherently unfair way to fund schools and virtually guarantee that education will be inequitably provided.  But it does serve the very important function of a clear and visible social contract, where residents are both funding and receiving public goods.  If you’ve ever lived in a state like New Hampshire, with “donor” and “receiver” districts, you know that redistribution of school funding can make politics pretty bitter and divisive.  Taking it to a federal level will make this problem worse, in much the same way that the fight over healthcare has gone – people with money and power really hate redistribution.

Furthermore, education spending is a form of social investment, and the federal government generally seems to underinvest.  Just look at the generally-deplorable levels of public infrastructure.  If we can’t trust the federal government to adequately provide structurally sound bridges and roads, how can we expect them to adequately prepare the minds of the next generation.  Especially given that metrics of education quality are necessarily more abstruse and poorly understood, it is a lot easier for the feds to skimp on spending without immediately seeing worse results.  The looser feedback loop (compared to, say, collapsing bridges) suggests that the federal government won’t be particularly responsive to declining education quality resulting from budget cuts.

I don’t know that there’s a first-best resolution to this issue.  Locally funded education has a lot of problems, principal among them inequity.  This is both an inequity of resources and of attention – well-educated districts are likely not only to be wealthier, but more committed to the principle of generously-funded schools, and inequality is entrenched on many levels.  On balance, federalizing the system might work somewhat better – but it’s not immediately apparent that’s the case.  And even if equity rises, I think it’s entirely possible that overall school quality falls a lot.  One result of our extremely unequal status quo is a relatively large number of very good suburban public schools that would be devastated by the loss of resources.  This is a policy issue with a pretty rough political economy, and while there are better possible worlds out there it’s definitely not immediately clear how we get there from here.


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