Getting the White House out of the schoolhouse was a key education goal of the Reagan Administration when it took office four years ago. The education agenda was long, and often controversial, but underpinning it all was a belief that Washington was not the right place to make decisions about education. The assumption was correct. What goes on in the classroom is a state and local matter.
Now, thanks to an obscure bit of law known as the Hatch Amendment, the administration is close to running local schools. This amendment, named for its Senate sponsor, Orrin Hatch (R- Utah), gives parents the right to excuse their children from federally funded "psychiatric or psychological experimentation, testing or treatment" designed to reveal political affliations, sexual behavior or attitudes.
Hatch's intention was on target. Parents should have a strong voice in running the local schools. Unfortunately, the Hatch Amendment is almost impossible to put into practice: instead of protecting local control of the schools, it increases federal control. Parents who believe the schools have ignored their wishes may complain directly to the Department of Education.
If the Hatch Amendment's regulations were tightly written, federal officials could evaluate only narrow and specific controversies. But the regulations by their nature are vague, and encourage unhappy parents to bring in the heavy artillery. Thus, a modest amendment designed to make federal officials less intrusive puts them in the driver's seat.
This has not been lost on special interest groups -- especially those on the New Right with a social agenda of their own. Yes, the same folks who want less government almost everywhere else want more government in education.
According to Education Week, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum has told local supporters the amendment covers, among other things, curricula pertaining to "alcohol and drugs; anti- nationalistic, one-world government or globalism; organic evolution, discussion of witchcraft and the occult, guided fantasy techniques, and autobiography assignments." In fact, it doesn't, but since people are being told that it does, schools are likely to get a dose of federal harassment.
Sen. Hatch, in a speech on the Senate floor, has criticized supporters of the law for going beyond the bounds of reasonableness.
In Hillsborough, Mo., for example, several parents charged that the district is violating the Hatch Amendment by offering state-mandated sex education courses, holding mock elections and requiring students to keep personal diaries. They also objected to the Walt Disney movie "Never Cry Wolf." Parents in Gallipolis, Ohio, used the Hatch Amendment to protest a voluntary high school drug and alcohol abuse project. In West Palm Beach, Fla., parents protested classroom discussions of death and dying and the teaching of critical thinking skills.
Controversies such as these are not new. Some parents always want to alter the curricula of the local schools. In the past, however, the federal government has stayed on the sidelines in these disputes. It appears that will soon change.
Liberals, of course, are scandalized by the whole business. Lost in their arguments are two decades worth of liberal efforts to establish and impose procedural standards on the schools for their purposes. Nobody, it seems, is above using the federal government to bully the local school when it suits their social agenda. If the nation's children weren't caught in the middle, it would be a fine bit of black humor. But the implications are serious.
An expansive interpretation of the Hatch Amendment violates federal law. The Department of Education is explicitly prohibited from exercising "any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration or personnel" of any local school. This strong prohibition, added, ironically, to placate conservatives who feared federal control of the classrooms, leaves little room for argument.
Equally important, centralized direction of schools undermines everything we know about good education. The issue is not liberal or conservative, it is practical. Effective schools cannot be run by remote bureaucracies. Good education is not created by government agencies any more than great art is created by committee.
The research evidence is unambiguous. Good schools set high standards, assign homework, emphasize intellectual (and physical) discipline, have a strong curriculum, and are staffed by excellent teachers and dedicated administrators. These elements can't be mandated; they come from the bottom up.
If there is a formula for good schools, it is less, not more, bureaucracy.
What happens next is an open question. The Department of Education has already been asked to review several Hatch Amendment cases. If it upholds the complaints and orders remedies, it ends up running the local schools.
The controversy surrounding the Hatch Amendment reveals the real danger of federal aid to education: whoever has power -- conservative or liberal -- is tempted to use it. Few have the strength of character to resist temptation.
Fortunately, the solution in this case is simple. Liberals, historically supporters of a big federal presence, are alarmed by the potential danger of the Hatch Amendment. Main-line conservatives have never countenanced such a federal role. They should join forces to repeal the Hatch Amendment and let states and localities turn their attention to improving the schools.