Ah..Those Laboratories of Democracy…

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.


  1. You have to admit that the desperation makes for great political theatre. Unfortunately for Brownback, the facts are the facts, same for Pence. I’m not for prayer, but the governor fasting – for an extended period – might produce something positive.

  2. To continue Brandeis’ analogy, a failure, in the laboratory, is as educational as a success – of course at some point you may be forced to conclude that the experiment failed to prove the hypothesis.

  3. In addition to prayer and fasting, Pence could surely get the legislature to commit even more money to the voucher system.

    Yes, let’s throw more money at the parochial schools so they will have more money to build higher steeples and larger sanctuaries and grow their congregations.

  4. Thank You Prof K. Now, can we please put church back in the church and government back in the government. School back in school. They are very different things. Different rules should apply. Logic, facts, proof are more important than ever. We don’t have time to waste.

  5. Fortunately Pence does not run the country; he has only the power to control residents of Indiana and deny civil and human rights to the groups he chooses do not deserve those freedoms.

    “Pence Must Go
    Your rights could be next”

  6. Nancy,

    “In addition to prayer and fasting, Pence could surely get the legislature to commit even more money to the voucher system.

    Yes, let’s throw more money at the parochial schools so they will have more money to build higher steeples and larger sanctuaries and grow their congregations.”

    Why would you expect more in a theocracy? The DNA of the socio/political culture in the U.S. is now tilted toward theocracy not democracy. Let’s don’t blame Donald Trump for all our ills. Kansas and Indiana are just excellent representatives of our times.

  7. A fact about those vouchers that few people understand is that the money to fund those vouchers comes out of the educations dollars for all public schools, so voucher money gets paid first and the public schools have to divide up what is left. So if you think vouchers only impact IPS or the other large cities, look at your local school corporation and take note of the increase in class size or the lack of AP classes or no art orusing teachers. While public schools go without, vouchers are paid out to private schools that can teach creationism, and tell girls they are subordinate to men while using tax dollars to build a new football field or repair a steeple ofnot their church. Vouchers are a scam forced in us by Daniels, Bennett and now Pence.

  8. Teresa,

    “Vouchers are a scam forced (o)n us by Daniels, Bennett and now Pence.”

    Theocracies are about force. What do you expect?

  9. You’re wasting a lot of valuable time. You must look deeper.

    Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.
    ~Professor Albert Einstein

  10. The right’s preferred education is religious and their preferred economics is Voodoo. At least they are consistent.

  11. Peggy,

    “The right’s preferred education is religious and their preferred economics is Voodoo. At least they are consistent.”

    I thought you would like the following. I was browsing through the very small book section in a used records shop the other day and found a book entitled “In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950:The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell,” Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1968). Orwell’s level of awareness has always been different than most human beings. I thought the following was very germane to the issues we are all confronting at the present time:

    “From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary rearrange past events to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then, again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revaluation of prominent historical figures [like Ronald Reagan]. This thing happens everywhere, but it is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands A DISBELIEF IN THE VERY EXISTENCE OF OBJECTIVE TRUTH.” pages 63-64

    This is just the type of environment for the rise of the likes of a Donald Trump….. “Let’s Make America Great Again!”

    Hopefully, we are not there yet. If so, we still have a chance to turn things around.

  12. Public school teachers in this state have shown that they will gonto the polls in large numbers to eliminate public officials that are doing harm to public schools.

    They successfully voted out Bennett. In my area of the state they are very angry (as are the majority of citizens) that the public school budgets have been cut so deeply. School systems have been forced to make so many cuts over the past few years. They have even been forced to cut out bus transportation in many systems, in addition to classroom subjects. I believe they will come out in force in November to throw Pence out of office.

  13. Nancy,

    “I believe they will come out in force in November to throw Pence out of office.”

    Why don’t you make sure that happens.? You know how to take the lead.

  14. Certainly it is a good thing to try new ideas as a means of learning. Human progress is based on “nothing ventured nothing gained”.

    Edison said that he never had a failed experiment, he learned something from every one.

    Trickle down might have worked, but it didn’t.

    Privatized education might have worked but it didn’t.

    Wall St on steroids might have worked but it didn’t

    The Bush holy wars might have worked but they didn’t.

    Shutting down Congress and the Supreme Court might have worked but it didn’t.

    Integrating church and state might have worked but it didn’t.

    Declaring that the second Ammendment says guns for everyone every place and every time might have worked but it didn’t.

    Slavery and racism and sexism and extreme nationalism might have worked but didn’t.

    Denying climate science might have worked but it didn’t.

    Donald Trump might have worked but he didn’t.

    Declaring vaccines bad and organic good might have worked but it didn’t.

    All have been successfully experimented with and learning followed.

    Why do people then promote policy for which the experience and evidence show lead to failure?

    Are we as a culture no longer capable of learning? Is the one trait that separates humans and bacteria to be discarded?

  15. Marv,

    The teachers in my area are out in force stating that they will be voting for Gregg. They don’t need me to take the lead. They voted out Bennett only to watch Pence and his cronies do everything they could think of to stop the person that the citizens voted for to replace him. They have had enough.

    However, I wonder if the teachers that have always supported the Republican party will continue to vote for their incumbent Republican legislators that are running for re-election. My hope is that they also realize the legislative members of ALEC must also go.

  16. On an only somewhat related but more urgent note:

    Is civil disobedience among Congress members a sometimes necessary expedient for democracy?

    I think that polling shows that 70% of Americans favor more effective gun regulation. Congress as presently constituted was ignoring we the people in favor of the generous campaign funding offered by the advertising agency for the killing machine industry.

    The sit in appears to me to be democracy if not civil order in practice.

    Perhaps Paul Ryan, the self presumed Congressional monarch, is about to learn the way that democracy really works as a prelude to the bigger lesson upcoming in Nov.

  17. The comments about changing history that doesn’t suit you reminded that our legislature tried to do that very thing. Studies here and around the country have consistently shown that public school students transferring to private and parochial schools do worse on average than their public school peers.

    When confronted with that information, voucher proponents tried to eliminate required I-STEP testing in voucher-recipient schools. (They weren’t even sheepish about it.) Then those pesky comparisons to public schools wouldn’t be a factor. Fortunately, the outcry into State House email boxes was ‘deafening’ from the education community. But the voucher proponents have no shame. They’ll be back unless the state legislature also changes.

    Compared to many of our state legislators, Mike Pence looks reasonable. He became the focal point for RFRA, but the legislature and its leaders in both houses (both of whom are lawyers and should know the constitution) shepherded that mess onto Mike Pence’s desk. Likewise, these leaders promote ever greater expansion of vouchers by cutting your local public schools while increasing public school their expenses with more standards and accountability.

    As long as people vote their traditional party and as long as gerrymandered state legislative districts are skewed to ‘safe’ districts which make it nearly impossible for an opponent to win, this craziness will continue. If John Gregg and Glenda Ritz are both elected but the voucher and RFRA legislature remains, we’ll be disappointed again.

  18. I interned for Rep. Linda Lawson and Rep. Shelli Vandenberg back in 2013….we got so many calls from teachers who voted for Ritz and then in their second breath they informed us that they voted for Pence and then for their Republican representatives and now they are passed off and I am hoping they understand the legislative process after witnessing the damage done to change their vote…however not holding my breath.
    My mom was a teacher in Terre Haute.

  19. Speaking to the Tony Bennett vs Glenda Ritz Supt of Public Education election a few years back, I recall chatting with School Board members, largely Democrat, from a large district whose opinions were aligned with my opinions. First, Tony Bennett was an arrogant pushy man disliked by most folks, me included; however, these same School Board members who deal in education policy daily viewed a vote for Glenda Ritz as simply a vote against Bennett and not a vote for any particular vision brought to the table by Ritz.

    I believe Ritz is a highly principled woman and an organized, structured woman as one would expect from a successful elementary school librarian, but without any experiential background in leadership/management beyond that received as a librarian in a Hamilton County elementary school she was caught off guard when faced with handling a group of seasoned and stubborn Statehouse elected politicians. The people at the Statehouse are not a polite group of elementary school teachers.

  20. Nancy,

    “However, I wonder if the teachers that have always supported the Republican party will continue to vote for their incumbent Republican legislators that are running for re-election. My hope is that they also realize the legislative members of ALEC must also go.”

    Maybe someone needs to make sure that the realize that “the legislative members of ALEC must also go.” The determination of voting for Gregg might not be sufficient to make a big enough difference. I’m not in Indiana, I can’t make a call on that one.

    I just remember the type of action you initiated a week or so ago. In the political environment that we are all in, just being for democracy won’t be enough, you also have to demonstrate that you’re against the anti-democratic forces.

  21. Government is not a laboratory science, as is creating paper from plants and dust, for example — one way to check to plant’s soil health, one to test the document itself. Professors have reported for years that they are having to work harder and hard to help students express learning opinions in writing, in graph papers of any kind at all that only humans do find meaningful — as otherwise only inks, dyes, stains, coatings for printers and paper suppliers.

  22. Stating upfront that my comment may be comparing apples and oranges; however, I’m seeing an incongruent thought pattern surrounding State money used for student scholarships surrounding the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program for K-12 students and the Indiana 21st Century Scholars Program for post-secondary students. Both are Indiana programs, both are described on websites from in.gov leading me to believe both programs are supported and funded by Indiana taxpayers, either directly or indirectly.

    While we receive negative feedback from many Indiana citizens regarding the K-12 Choice Program where students use State money to attend private schools, many of them with religious affiliations, we never receive negative feedback from voters regarding the 21st Century Scholar Program where the student recipients can use their gift money at public, private, and proprietary colleges/universities in Indiana. Again, many of the approved eligible colleges have a religious affiliation. For the sake of thought purity, why not restrict the 21st Century Scholar gifts to Indiana ‘public’ colleges/universities?

    See attached list of eligible Indiana colleges and universities.

  23. BSH, what is the makeup of the “negative feedback from many Indiana citizens regarding the K-12 Choice Program”? From people in the program or taxpayers not in that program displeased either with the cost or the choice of schools?

    Your point about asking tax payers to only support public university scholarships is a good one. It almost seems unconstitutional otherwise not to mention fit for fraud, “religious” being so hard to define.

    Does anyone suppose that private religious schools are not paying taxes but benefiting from those who do by receiving state scholarship income?

  24. Phyllis, “Government is not a laboratory science”. Perhaps it does not experiment using lab scale equipment but it certainly lends itself to testing and measuring and outcome based evaluation. In fact I would say that there are few disciplines that don’t. In fact at the moment I can’t think of any.

    Research is pretty fundamental to progress although that sometimes appears to be more a liberal viewpoint than a conservative one.

  25. Marv, enjoyed your comment on the totalitarian state. I have been re-reading Solzhenitsyn’s – First Circle. The first time I read it I was still working. The book was depressing as I felt working for Corporate America was my own Gulag. I am now retired.

    There was this part in the book – Abakumov is giving a report to Stalin. – But he (Abakumov) knew his Boss. One must never work full force for Stalin, never go all out. He did not tolerate flat failure to carry out his orders, but he hated thoroughly successful performance because he saw in it a diminution of his own uniqueness. No one but himself must be able to do anything flawlessly.

    So even when he seemed to be straining in the harness, Abakumov was pulling at half-strength – and so was everyone else.

    Just as King Midas turned everything into gold, Stalin turned everything to mediocrity.

    Solzhenitsyn had such a way with words and the ability to touch many emotions in the reader.
    For the life of me I cannot think of single positive accomplishment of Ronald Raygun, yet the Republicans have elevated him to Sainthood. The Republican contenders or pretenders for President groveled before Raygun’s memory like people did in the USSR to Stalin when he was alive.

  26. Louie,

    Thanks for reminding me about the First Circle. It’s been a long time since I first read it. I need to at lease browse through it again.

    I also felt the same as you about working for corporate America. I quit when I was 34. It’s cost me financially, but at least I’ve been emotionally and politically free for a very long time.

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