Student Carissa Harris has written an interesting article in support of her masters in political science at Virginia Tech. I found out about it because it discusses my piece on federalism and education. The most interesting part, to me, is her research into the possible correlation between state constitutions and civics curriculum.
First, Harris examined each of the 50 state constitutions. She breaks them down into three categories: (1) constitutions that provide for free schools but do not mention the importance of schools for democracy (this is the majority of states), (2) constitutions that “begin their education articles with an explicit statement that education is essential to the maintenance of democracy” (there are 14 of them) and (3) Iowa, which has no education provision in its constitution. Second, Harris examined “each state’s high school graduation requirements, both for social studies in general and for civics/government courses in particular.”
Harris was looking for a connection between strong constitutional provisions about education and strong graduation requirements in civic education, but she didn’t find much. “Only eight of the 14 states with such constitutional emphases include civics or government courses as part of their social studies requirements for high school graduation,” she wrote, leading to the conclusion that there is “[n]o clear connections between state constitutions and social studies requirements emerged from these 50-state comparisons.”
Harris then picked two neighboring states to compare: Minnesota, with a strong constitutional provision about education, and Wisconsin, without one. Here, she found some variation, concluding that “[e]ach state’s different approach to curriculum requirements indicates that the state with a more explicit education mandate in its constitution (Minnesota) has more specific and rigorous civics education graduation requirements. But that does not preclude an individual school district in Wisconsin from implementing the same or more rigorous civics requirements.”
I’m not surprised that there is a weak correlation here. My suspicion is that state politics vary just as much if not more than federal politics, and a particular constitutional provision—especially one so weak as an explanation for why the state needs to provides schools—reflects the political emphasis at a particular point in time. Curriculum, I would think, is changed more often, and likely at a different time, and by different political players, resulting in a weak connection between the constitutional authority for, and the nuts and bolts of, a state’s education policy.
Harris’s ultimate conclusion is stated stronger than her evidence supports: “That many states do not provide thorough civics education requirements (possibly because of lack of resources or because more focus is placed on curriculum areas subject to high stakes standardized tests) suggests that inconsistency in, and an overall lack of discussion about, education standards will continue. Without an explicit Constitutional motivation to set such standards, it appears the status quo will remain into the foreseeable future.” I’m not persuaded. I think that states can and will take more control on education if there is political willpower, regardless of “constitutional motivation.” In fact, no “constitutional motivation” will likely ever exist unless there is a strong education-reform political constituency.
On another note, Harris addresses my proposal that the Department of Education could have a strong role as a meeting place for state and federal education policymakers. She acknowledges that Congress is in fact heading this direction, but argues that “this would lead once again to more national control over education policy, which would contravene the trend of new judicial federalism.” I disagree that my proposal means more federal control over education policy. Right now we have lots of federal control, with standards many criticize as too one-size-fits-all. Giving states more ways to express their concerns to the Department of Education—whether through waiver applications, special notice and comment procedures, or stronger provisions for state-initiated judicial review—and giving the agency leeway to address these concerns, would tip the balance in the other direction.