Many of you might have woken up on November 9 (and perhaps each day thereafter) thinking to yourself “but Donald Trump can’t actually do that, can he?” As far as education goes, the answer is mostly “no, he can’t.” The federal executive branch cannot make binding education policy: it can only offer states funds in exchange for adopting preferred policies.
This is because thankfully there are structural limitations to the president’s power; in high school social studies we called them “checks and balances” and probably thought of them as quaint academic concepts. But these checks and balances — especially the intentional friction between the states and the federal government — will play a big role in education policymaking over the next four years.
Federalism is the name for the concept that the U.S. Constitution grants certain limited powers to the federal government and that all other powers are preserved by the states. Despite the possibly misleading name, it is the philosophy that constrains federal power and it is a fundamental principle of American government. And one of the most visible exercises of that state power is public education. (Others that will likely be very important over the next four years include policing and health care.)
Federalism is the reason that Donald Trump cannot abolish Common Core, create voucher schemes that spend state money, eliminate a state’s scholarships for undocumented students, or otherwise infringe on a state’s right to provide education in whatever manner its legislature sees fit. And it has, until now, been the rallying cry of the right. If you’ve found yourself trying to understand just how much this incoming administration can (or, more accurately, can’t) do about public education, you’re asking a question about federalism. And if the answers bring you comfort, you might be a new federalist. (Well, technically a new new federalist.)
If you were dismayed to see ESSA handing a whole lot of decisionmaking back to the states but you’re now thinking that was a remarkable gift, you might be a new federalist. If you’re paying more attention than ever before to your state legislature, your state office of education, your governor’s office, your school board, your district superintendent, and your regional charter authorizer, you’re probably a new federalist. If you’ve found yourself defending the power of each state to make its own education policies, you’re definitely a new federalist.
When it comes to changing education policy at the state level, the federal government has only one tool available: incentives. ESSA is, in the abstract, nothing more than a complex incentive system pegged to federal money. As was Race to the Top. A state could lawfully refuse all federal education dollars and then do almost whatever it pleased (it would still be required to guarantee protected federal rights). Federalism means that Donald Trump can only incentivize policies; he cannot mandate them. And he can only incentivize them with money. Aside from resistance that the federal executive might encounter from the states, this president will also be grappling with the internal tension of a party that prioritizes decreased spending and smaller government.
What does this mean for the work of state and local education providers and advocates? It means that we ought not let ourselves get carried away with the dramatic rhetoric surrounding this administration, at least when it comes to education reform. Unless this administration is prepared to commit to funding its desires — which is hard to imagine given the current Congressional makeup — then it’s likely to remain just rhetoric.
In the space of just a few months, a community of education reformers have turned away from comprehensive national solutions and are taking hold of the “states’ rights” flag. Come January 20, they will be waving it madly. But “states’ rights” isn’t a conservative talking point, a shield for regressive policymaking, or permission to violate fundamental rights: it’s an essential protection against federal legislative overreach. It’s an opportunity to create those policies that best serve the students in your state and to protect those policies against federal bullying. The federal government can do good and important things, but it never runs unchecked (or, well, unbalanced). If that sounds like a conservative position, it’s because in modern history, it was the Republicans who resisted federal intervention of all kinds. But Republicans are not alone anymore, and that’s a good thing. Democratic principles like federalism belong to all people. Many who have come before us have protected this principle (even when it led to outcomes they didn’t like), and invoking it now — in the face of promises of disruptive and large-scale federal action unprecedented in our lifetimes — isn’t hypocritical, it’s American.