Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Jane Robbins, senior fellow at American Principles Project.
Piercing the gloom of the current educational and political landscape are a few glimmers of hope. One promising development is that some state and local education officials are now openly discussing what previously was never uttered aloud for fear of being struck down by the gods of lucre – the possibility of relinquishing federal funding to regain autonomy over education.
An early sign of light appeared in response to the unlawful decree issued by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) concerning transgender students. After USED threatened public schools if they didn’t open up all restrooms, locker rooms, sleeping quarters, and probably sports teams to both sexes, three school board members (Brian Halladay, Wendy Hart, and Paula Hill) in Utah’s Alpine School District sent a letter to state leaders objecting to a “level of federal overreach [that] is as unprecedented as it is unconstitutional.”
These board members downplayed USED’s probably bogus threats of funding loss but declared that even if the federal dictators followed through, such bullying could have a silver lining — an “ideal opportunity to declare Utah’s sovereignty, and to allow our children to be free from the tyrannical mandates of our federal government.” The board members went on to argue that student safety and privacy should trump any funding concerns, especially when just 8 percent of the district’s budget comes from federal funds.
These members pursued the subject at the next board meeting. They noted that their district has been accommodating transgender students for years, without complaint, and argued that this successful local policy should not be preempted by federal mandates. They then pushed for a backup budget that would exclude the $40 million federal portion of a nearly $500 million district budget. Objections from the fainthearted, including the chairman, dissuaded the board from taking that step immediately, but the board did promise to continue the discussion. Given the hitherto verboten nature of musings about financial independence from the feds, that in itself was a significant victory.
Another hopeful sign comes from Colorado. Like state education officials throughout the country, Colorado officials are upset about USED’s implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was marketed, deceptively, as restoring state autonomy over education. State officials are now realizing that the real power lies in USED’s power to regulate under the statute – and as Arne Duncan crowed at the time, the Republican Congress gave USED exactly what it wanted in that regard.
All of this adds up to a tremendous headache for local and state school officials who were assured by Lamar Alexander and his education-establishment minions that ESSA would reduce the federal footprint on public education.
Beyond the specifics of the federal regulations, the particularly interesting development at this Colorado meeting was that two State Board members ventured into Just Say No territory when it comes to federal funds. Democrat Val Flores and Republican Deb Scheffel repeatedly suggested that the state perform a cost-benefit analysis on the federal education funding it receives. Flores wondered aloud how much money the state could save if it no longer had to abide by federal testing mandates. Although no official move was made to pursue that suggestion, the very fact that it was mentioned in an open meeting – on a bipartisan basis – is significant.
USED’s regulatory process is showing that even a statute that supposedly restrains the ever-expanding federal behemoth can and will be used to increase its power. And as demonstrated by the “transgender” guidance, that power will be employed to impose radical ideology on states, schools, and families. The best way to turn back the onslaught is to reject the federal money that funds it. That some state and local education officials are now beginning to discuss this possibility is welcome news indeed.