vated, no centralized rule books or formulasare going to inspire peak performance fromtheir students. To use social science jargon,schools are “loosely coupled systems”; there-fore, decrees from centralized administratorshave little power to boost school perfor-mance but enormous power to impedeprogress. Indeed, before the mid–20th centu-ry such administrators were either nonexis-tent or mostly irrelevant; key decisions weremade at the level of the individual school by principals and teachers.
Moreover, schooling inescapably involves judgments about truth and virtue, about whatkind of person a youngster should aspire to be.In an increasingly pluralistic society, Americansare inevitably going to disagree with each otherabout those judgments. Which historical fig-ures should children be encouraged to revere asheroes? What should they be taught aboutancient belief systems such as Christianity andIslam—and about modern ideologies such asfeminism and environmentalism? Should “tra-ditional values” such as piety, chastity, andasceticism be celebrated, ridiculed, or simply ignored? Americans in the 21st century have nomore chance of reaching consensus on thosequestions than of agreeing on what church (if any) we should all attend. That is why we keepthe state out of controlling churches, just as wekeep it out of other value-forming institutionssuch as publishing and journalism. The morewe entrust such decisions to centralized stateagencies, the more conflicts we foment—con-flicts that in a truly free society would be unnec-essary. As legal scholar Stephen Arons observedin 1997: “One civic group after anotherattempts to impose its vision of good educa-tion, and all join in a struggle over the one truemorality to be adopted by the public schools.The outcomes of the conflicts over curriculum,texts, tests, and teachers seem less and less likeconstructive compromises that knit communi-ties together; more and more they resembleblood feuds, ideological wars, episodes of self-ishness wrapped in the rhetoric of rectitude.”
Zero-sum “culture wars” for control of coercive state monopolies thus make ene-mies of people who could otherwise befriends. Perhaps in some bygone era eachlocal public school reflected a local consen-sus. But in today’s ultra-mobile society, inwhich communities are less and less definedby geography, the only way to keep the cul-ture wars from engulfing the schools is a comprehensive strategy of parental choice.The key to rescuing our children from thebureaucratized government schools is radicaldecentralization: tuition tax credits, taxdeductions, and vouchers. Unfortunately,NCLB is taking us in precisely the oppositedirection.Granted, NCLB does not explicitly call fornational curricula. The statute mandatesstandards for testing, not for curricula, and itleaves the specific content and design of thetests up to the states. But in the long run thetests will, at least to some degree, drive thecurricula, and that will loom even larger if NCLB is extended to high school programsas well as to elementary-level reading andmath. The statute is already promoting cen-tralization within each state, to the detrimentof pluralism and local control. It couldbecome a force for national centralization aswell if future administrations should exerciseto its full potential their power to deny feder-al funding to states whose testing programsare deemed inadequate.So far, the Bush administration has beencautious in exercising that power. During lastyear’s presidential election campaign, theadministration wanted to avoid headlinesabout conflicts with state education agencies;it tried to perpetuate as best it could the con-genial atmosphere of the bipartisan signingceremony when NCLB became law in January 2002.
Nevertheless, the states are restive.Many are complaining that NCLB is excessive-ly intrusive; dozens of state legislatures havepassed resolutions criticizing the statute.
Such complaints are not necessarily unjusti-fied. Any statute as long and complicated asNCLB inevitably requires that state and localschool officials spend thousands of manhoursfilling out federal forms and complying withprocedural requirements from Washington—even if that red tape produces little or nothing
The key torescuing ourchildren from thebureaucratizedgovernmentschools is radicaldecentralization:tuition taxcredits, taxdeductions, and vouchers.Unfortunately,NCLB is takingus in precisely theoppositedirection.