There was an enlightening exchange about the federal involvement in education between Justice Samuel Alito and U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli during the Obamacare oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month. Education Week reported on why the topic came up:
They came up as the justices debated whether the health-care law’s expansion of the Medicaid program would give the federal government limitless powers to impose conditions on the states when they accept money in other areas, such as education.
Justice Alito on the topic of federal spending in education said:
Let’s say Congress says to the States: We have got great news for you; we know your expenditures on education are a huge financial burden, so we are going to take that completely off your shoulders; we are going to impose a special Federal education tax which will raise exactly the same amount of money as all of the states now spend on education; and then we are going to give you a grant that is equal to what you spent on education last year.
Now, this is a great offer and we think you will take it, but of course, if you take it, it’s going to have some conditions because we are going to set rules on teacher tenure, on collective bargaining, on curriculum, on textbooks, class size, school calendar and many other things. So take it or leave it.
This is the slippery slope of allure of federal dollars – they always come with strings attached which in turn cedes more and more control to the federal government. But “don’t worry,” the feds say, “its voluntary.” Lindsey Burke of The Heritage Foundation points out that this is a strange conception of federalism.
And it’s a very strange conception of federalism that says that we can simply give the States an offer that they can’t refuse, and through the spending power—which is premised on the notion that Congress can do more because it’s voluntary—we can force the States to do whatever we tell them to. That is a direct threat to our federalism.
I totally agree. States need to think less about the short term gain of federal dollars and more about the long-term implications of letting the feds dictate what the standards should be.