Let’s start with a thought experiment.
Your elected state legislators are confronted with a series of bills addressing crumbling bridges and roads in your state. After a period of typical partisan debate, a final bill is proposed that not only funds new bridge and road construction, but also dictates how those bridges and roads must be constructed.
Most of the legislators who wrote and voted on the bill have laws degrees or career experiences in business; none of the legislators are structural engineers, and thus, no expertise in constructing bridges or roads.
Structural engineers and those whose profession is building bridges and roads note that the legislation is dangerous, ill conceived, and certainly will result in bridges and roads that will cost people’s lives.
None the less, the bill passes and then is signed by your governor.
This thought experiment likely seems outlandish, but it represents a key distinction about the role of legislators as that impacts public institutions (in this hypothetical situation, our highway/road infrastructure). In brief, it is the role of legislators to fund and ensure at least adequate if not excellent public institutions; it is not the role of legislators to dictate how those public institutions should be realized since a legislative body often lacks the expertise to create those mandates.
This brings me to my primary area of expertise, education.
Specifically since the last months of the Trump administration, there has been a wave of state-level legislation censoring curriculum, banning books and ideas, and mandating all aspects of formal education (curriculum and instruction)—often including mechanisms for parents to trigger censorship and even dismissal of teachers and professors based on personal ideologies and perceived “discomfort” by students.
This partisan political trend fits into a larger contemporary and century-long history of legislators mandating not just that education by provided but what and how that education must include.
As one example, since about 2018, states have proposed and passed very detailed and prescriptive reading legislation, a movement that fits into the accountability era of education that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
My home state of South Carolina is a powerful example of good intentions that have gone terribly wrong.
Under the guidance of then-governor (and future Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton) Richard Riley, SC established the now-familiar structure of K-12 public education, broadly labeled as accountability—state-level standards (approved by legislators), state-level high-stakes testing (approved by legislators), and various consequences for schools and teachers meeting or not those mandated parameters.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, bolstered by the misleading and partisan A Nation at Risk report released under Ronald Reagan, governors increasingly discovered that focusing on education reform paid significant political dividends (regardless of political party).
The narrative was simple, although deeply misleading: U.S. public education is failing students and the country because of the inherent flaws of the education establishment; therefore, it is the responsibility of elected officials to mandate all aspects of education.
By the mid-1990s into the 2000s, George W. Bush pushed the envelope of being an education governor onto the national stage; Bush created another false narrative around his so-called “Texas Miracle” (along with Rod Paige as Texas superintendent of education) that helped propel Bush to the White House and then take the state-level template for education reform to the federal level with No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
While NCLB floundered, never producing the results promised in the same ways that state-level accountability never fulfilled promises, the template was set for governors and presidents; the Obama administration (embodied by Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education) doubled-down on the Bush/ Paige/ Spellings model, in fact.
In many ways, the current wave of curriculum gag orders and book censorship (as well as the copy-cat legislation imposing a misguided “science of reading” mandate on reading instruction) is the logical progression within that accountability approach to education.
In that model, authority is centered in elected officials, and expertise is trumped by that political authority.
Since the 1980s, accountability legislation and political micromanaging have not improved education in the U.S. (at regular intervals, the same crisis discourse is repeated, followed by the same strategies for reform, just under different political leaders), but that model has served political careers well at the expense of education, democracy, and now, academic freedom.
Legislators, then, have replaced their democratic responsibilities for funding and ensuring public institutions with using education, for example, as a political football for their own careers.
Just as legislators should fund but not mandate how to build our roads and bridges, they should fully fund but not dictate how or what teachers teach—especially when their mandates are serving ideological agendas and not teaching or learning in a country that claims to respect individual liberty, democracy, and academic freedom.
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