Education is today’s political buzzword, and, like any issue involving children, it is quickly becoming a trump card. Following President Clinton’s cue, Jesse Jackson is traveling the country, raising support for an “education summit.” And despite George Bush’s claim to be the “education President,” Clinton has put more of a mark on the American educational system, further centralizing education, both academically and financially, in Washington, D.C.

Most of the educational “goals” that Clinton set forth in his State of the Union Address were unobjectionable, although his overemphasis on technology and computer training is a problem, even for those who believe that the sole purpose of education is the production of skilled workers. Computer technology is advancing so rapidly that anything learned in grade school will be completely useless by the time the student enters the workforce. The visual imagery of computers has also undermined the development of fundamental skills such as reading and writing, and their presence in the classroom, and more importantly in homes, is one reason why a vast number of children are still unable to read at age eight.

The trouble with Clinton’s educational plans, however, is that they represent further federal intervention in education, a subject traditionally reserved to states and local governments. Just as the constitutional language of preserving “the common defense” has been used to justify meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, so too the language of promoting “the common welfare” has been used to justify undermining the role of parents, local communities, and states in educating their young.

Since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 was supposed to be a vote for devolution, Clinton should have faced some opposition from Republicans. Is there a clearer issue on which to argue for taking power away from Washington and returning it to parents and local communities? But the opposition never materialized. Indeed, one of the most impassioned leaders in the battle for returning welfare policy to the states, Michigan Governor John Engler, has endorsed the President’s plan. In his own State of the State Address, Engler went even further than the President, proposing legislation that would establish “academic receivership” for school districts that did not meet certain state standards. Those districts would be placed under state-appointed “receivers” who, according to the Detroit Free Press, “would have broad power to fire principals and other administrators, and take virtually all decisions from local school boards.” As Engler said in his address, “We cannot sit by and ignore the problems in the name of local control.” (His remarks echoed a line from a speech that Clinton had delivered a week before in Illinois: “We can no longer hide behind our love of local control of the schools and use that as an excuse not to hold ourselves to high standards.”)

Engler has been criticized by many for the racial overtones of his plan (the students in the school districts most likely to be placed into state receivership are overwhelmingly minority), but the black Democratic mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer, pointed out the real danger. “Whatever the problems in the Detroit public schools,” Archer argued, “we have not reached the point where Lansing can educate Detroit children better than Detroiters.”

I am a product of Michigan’s public schools, but I now live in Rockford, Illinois, a city whose school system has, for the past three years, been under federal control as the result of a desegregation lawsuit. After $100 million in court-ordered spending, Rockford’s schools are far worse. Most of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit—which had been filed to achieve equity in funding between predominantly white and predominantly black schools—have now denounced it, and are looking for ways to shake off federal control, stop busing before it starts, and revitalize Rockford’s old neighborhood school system. State control or federal control, the problem is still the same: the arrogance of public officials who believe that they care more for our children than we do. We know what works best for children, and it is not—as President Clinton and Governor Engler have proposed—further school consolidation, nationalized standards, or bureaucratized education. The real keys to success are neighborhood schools, local standards, and—above all else—parental involvement.