When I introduce students to America’s constitutional architecture, I sometimes begin by asking them to define federalism. Judging from the blank stares and efforts to avoid being called on, I think it’s fair to say that our federalist system is not widely understood.
That’s too bad, because one of the policy debates we should be having–but aren’t–is how such a system should operate in a time when transportation and communication technologies have changed the way we view state lines. What sorts of rules and policies need to be national in scope, and which are best left to state and local government?
However we answer that question, one important role that states will undoubtedly continue to play is in the development of new approaches to governing.
Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy;” the idea was that state governments would try new ideas and programs, acting as “pilot projects,” that would allow the rest of the country to evaluate the merits of those approaches before adopting them.
Inevitably, some will be cautionary tales, and pre-eminent in that category is Kansas or, as Charles Pierce calls it,
the failed state of Kansas, now in the fifth year of the Brownbackian Dark Ages, as such things are reckoned. Somehow, the fact that Kansas’ status as a supply-side lab rat has dropped the state down a political garbage chute the likes of which hasn’t been seen since they shredded the Articles of Confederation is beginning to seep under the guardhouses of the gated communities. The head of a healthcare company is fleeing to the Missouri border and he’s not shy about telling the world why.
The blistering indictment of Brownback’s Kansas by that company’s CEO is illuminating; noting that Kansas has become a test center of “trickle down” economics, he pointed out that those policies have led to a “dramatic failure of government.”
Brownback implemented unprecedented tax cuts in 2012. The largest cuts were in the highest tax brackets, and Brownback promised that they would provide a “shot of adrenaline” for the Kansas economy. They actually had the opposite effect, with Kansas lagging neighboring states in job growth and missing revenue targets in 11 of the past 12 months. In the face of ever-deeper debt and another round of degraded bond ratings, Brownback has asked his citizens to pray and fast to solve the budget crisis.
That should turn things around. Not.
It is tempting to look at the hot mess that is Kansas and feel better about Indiana. And granted, our fiscal problems–while substantial– are less severe. But our Governor has generated his own cautionary tales.
Take, for just one example, his attack on public education and his fervent support of school vouchers. Indiana now has the largest voucher program in the country–and some of the most consistently under-resourced public schools. The public justification for expanding the voucher program is that allowing parents to choose private schools will improve education, at least as measured by test scores. (Given the percentage of families using those vouchers at religious schools, however, it is likely that the Governor’s preference for church over state– his consistent effort to bolster religious institutions and practices– is implicated.)
So how has Indiana’s “laboratory experiment” been working out? Not so well.
Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.
Perhaps Governor Pence can call for a day of prayer and fasting to raise the test scores of those voucher students. In the meantime, other states can be grateful for a federalist system that lets them learn from–and avoid– others’ disasters.