The president of Hillsdale College tells Breitbart News about the importance of getting the federal government out of education and back into the hands of parents and teachers who know their children and students best.
Dr. Larry Arnn explains that because Hillsdale rejects federal funding, it enjoys the freedom to teach its students what they need to know without interference and mandates from the centralized bureaucracy that is the U.S. Department of Education.
“Federal monies became available to colleges for general purposes around 1960,” Arnn says. “And we started not taking the money back then. By a series of steps they began to offer money directly to colleges and they began to attempt to regulate them more comprehensively.”
Rumored to have been among potential nominees for education secretary in the new Trump administration, Arnn explains that Hillsdale – which was founded in Michigan in 1844 – would not accept federal funds, a situation that came to a head during the Jimmy Carter administration, when some of the school’s students were given some form of federal aid. Eventually, Hillsdale – along with some other schools – received a demand letter from the federal government for compliance with regulations in return for the aid given to their students.
“The threat was a department of education official said, ‘We’re going to close these colleges down,’” Arnn continues, noting that, in response, Hillsdale sued the department and won the lawsuit in an administrative court. Then-Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare Joseph Califano, however, overturned the administrative judge’s ruling.
After a decade of legislation, Hillsdale ultimately lost its argument in the Supreme Court in 1984. The college had already decided, however, that rather than comply with federal demands and unconstitutional regulation, it would replace student federal taxpayer aid with private donations.
Arnn explained Hillsdale officials at the time said they “believe in the free market, and we don’t want to be a creature of the federal government, and we never have been.”
“Over the years, look what’s happened,” Arnn says, “the regulation of colleges and the regulation of everything else is very comprehensive now.”
Asked by Breitbart News about the danger of taxpayer-funded school vouchers bringing in more regulation to private and religious schools, Arnn replied, “That’s right. My position on that is what I understand to be a constitutional position.”
Arnn explained a provision in Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance “gives the biggest subsidy to education that’s ever been given.” In addition to providing the greater part of the land described in the Ordinance for private use, it also provided for a section of land to be used for public purposes for education in each township to be controlled by the states.
“So, that means the founders believed in education and subsidized it,” he states. “But, the question is how did they do that. The way the schools used to work in America is that they were run in the towns. Giving control of education to people who are a long way off from the process is a bad idea. And that’s what we do now.”
“There isn’t anything wrong with public education,” Arnn continues, “but it shouldn’t be centralized and bureaucratized in the way the whole government has been.”
Arnn says he is supportive of charter schools and, in fact, Hillsdale College currently operates 16 nonprofit charter schools around the country that provide a classical education. In 2014, Breitbart News reported on the Hillsdale Barney Charter School Initiative.
“We don’t take any money from those charter schools,” Arnn says, adding:
Whatever we do for them we raise or have. But we believe in those schools, we provide the curriculum, and we help their headmasters, we train their teachers, etc. But we only put those charter schools in states where the charter law enables the independence of the school under a local board to run the school as they please.
“The federal charter law, under the new Secretary of Education, should say the contract should allow the schools to have wide latitude to run themselves the way they want,” Arnn says, acknowledging that Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for education secretary, is someone he “knows and admires.”
“If you get a charter law like that – and there are states today where the charter law is very good – then you can run a charter school under roughly the same terms schools were originally founded under in America,” he explains. “So, I don’t object to charter schools if they’re not centralized and bureaucratized.”
Breitbart News asked Arnn about states that have experienced difficulties with over-regulation of private and religious schools when vouchers are used and the state demands “accountability” of taxpayer funds, often through outcome measures such as standardized test results – the same ones required of public schools.
“Just remember, of course we have to have a government, and of course we have to have a strong government,” Arnn says. “But there’s more than one kind of such government. And what we have today is nosy government.”
“The government has the force of law, and the way it should regulate is to leave as much discretion as is possible in the hands of the people actually doing the work,” he asserts, “and that is the parents and the teachers who have much greater reason to care about the education of the kids than anybody in the federal bureaucracy.”
Asked about Trump’s campaign rhetoric regarding the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, Arnn said Congress could pass a measure to end the department and Trump could sign it.
“I don’t think they’ll do that,” he admits. “But I think what they should do is something else that will lead to that.”
The way the system works, and remember it is a very significant fact that you can read the Constitution all day long and not find the word “education” in there. And yet, in the same summer they were writing the Constitution, Congress passed a law that we know the leading founders all supported reserving land to benefit education. So, we know education was very important to them. And we also know they did not include it in the Constitution. And that’s the reason the federal government doesn’t have direct power to just pass a law and tell everybody the things they have to study.
Arnn continued that if DeVos, who is a known proponent of charter schools, is confirmed as the education secretary, she should ensure that states allow charter schools to be run independently under local boards.
“We have to instead pass laws that give general guidance, introduce variety, and let the competition happen,” he suggests, adding that media should then report on the competition.
“It’s going to take time to fix education, and I think the way you fix it is by introducing the option of doing good schools,” he says.
Arnn agrees with the assertion that the new “bipartisan” Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind, still provides the education secretary with substantial power over the states’ education policy and standards.
“This will be an opportunity for her [DeVos] to put a system in place for options and establish that for a long time, and then I would make the obvious comment, ‘What are we even doing here anymore? Let’s get rid of this department,’” he recommends, adding that if the plan goes well, he could foresee the education department being dismantled in five years.
“If Betsy DeVos has a lot of power, then her successor would have that, too,” he observes. “So, it would be better to get rid of her successor.”