Acton Commentary

The Nose of a Camel: The Federal Government and Education


A new school year is underway and parents, children, and teachers have returned to their school season routines - packing lunches, doing homework, preparing lesson plans ... and dealing with federal regulations.

Everyone knows that when the national government takes an interest in an issue, new levels of bureaucracy and regulation follow. Sometimes it is worth pausing, though, to take a look at the instructive history of federal involvement in such matters.

A new book by Douglas J. Slawson, The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932 , is a case study in federal government involvement. Slawson focuses on an especially active period of lobbying for and against a federal department of education, a period that ended with the forces of government expansion defeated (an unfortunately too-rare outcome). Of course, the advocates of a Cabinet-level department would eventually get their wish, when a separate U.S. Department of Education came into being almost 50 years later in 1979. (Federal funding and regulation were already long established by that point.)

Slawson's book, published by The University of Notre Dame Press, highlights the role of Catholics in defeating the drive for a federal department of education. Protective of the school system they built at heavy cost, Catholics were sensitive to any move that appeared to threaten their schools' existence. It was the 1920s after all, an era of anti-Catholic sentiment that manifested itself, among other places, in an Oregon law that mandated public-school attendance for elementary-age children. (The law was nullified by the courts, a ruling upheld by the Supreme Court in 1925.)

As Slawson points out, Catholics were not alone, however; in fact, they were “in the political mainstream.” President Coolidge in particular was concerned with shrinking government expenses, and the creation of another Cabinet-level department was hardly consonant with that goal. Lutherans, too, who boasted a large parochial school system of their own, lobbied against the establishment of a mechanism that could be used to standardize schooling and make life difficult for non-public education.

On the other side were a variety of public school proponents, the National Education Association among the more respectable of them. Already a powerful and astute lobbyist, the NEA, failing in the contemporary political climate to get the whole package of a federal department and federal funding for schools, settled on a piecemeal campaign, whereby a department would be achieved first. Funding and control would naturally follow.

But opponents were wise to the strategy. Jesuit Paul Blakely at America magazine opined that any federal involvement represented the nose of a camel poking into the education tent: “Soon the whole animal would be inside.” Catholics understood that the federal government had a valuable and vital role to play in American society, a role articulated and delineated in the Constitution. But education regulation was clearly intended by the Constitution to be a function of local and state governments. Catholics perceived that their self-interest and constitutional principles coincided and they made the most of it.

The push for bigger government is relentless, however, and the NEA and its allies eventually won their department. The latest installment of federal funding (and control), the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has continued the trend. As one veteran educator put it, public school administrators are “pulling out their hair” trying to comply with the Act's extensive reporting requirements, which mandate not only administration and tabulation of test scores for every student, but tracking of progress made by sub-groups such as African-Americans, to ensure that no group is being left behind.

The impetus behind NCLB — discontent with the poor quality of public education in many parts of the country — was justified. But the effort to address the problem, coming as it did from a national office incapable of taking into account local variations, became a bureaucratic nightmare.

The NEA is now among the loudest critics of NCLB. But the act is the logical result of a federal department of education that the NEA lobbied strenuously for decades to create. The power of the leviathan appears seductive until it has passed out of one's own control.

Instead, and in retrospect, the uncompromising approach of the Catholic opposition 80 years ago appears to be validated. When next it is proposed that the federal government get involved in an area beyond what the Constitution provides, we should remember the warning about the nose of a camel.