We are a country that still strongly believes in states' rights. Not withstanding Lincoln's victory during "the war of northern aggression", as it is known by my colleagues living below the Mason Dixon line, the desire for individual state's rights are still seen most profoundly in regards to our educational system. During the Federal Constitutional Convention (1787), states' rights proponents pressed to include their ideas in the Constitution; others advocated a strong national government, with minimal power residing with the states. The federal system adopted at that convention was a reasonably satisfactory compromise that reconciled state and national power. It included an upper house, the Senate, which provided each state with equal input into the legislative process. In 1791, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution made the states' rights doctrine more explicit: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." However, the federal government can influence state policy even in areas that are constitutionally the purview of the states (e.g., education, local road construction) through withholding funds from states that fail to comply with its wishes. John Stuart Mill (1859) wrote that an "education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence." During the nineteenth century the dangers of too much state involvement in the sphere of education was seen as a necessary state intervention to reduce the dominance of the church and thereby to protect the right to education of children against their own parent's belief system. During the late 20th century the term, "states' rights" came to be applied more broadly to a variety of efforts aimed at reducing the powers of the national government.
Educational reform has been adversely impacted by the overarching desire to protect state rights. While other countries were developing a national approach toward effective education, individual states within the United States developed separate statewide standards to guide the education of their children. The result of such a fractured system is most clearly seen in NAEP testing, which is currently the most reliable example of a "national report card."
Compared to other developed countries, the United States continues to exhibit poorer and poorer test results, especially in the area of mathematics and science.
Failure of every state to adopt national standards for learning, clinically-based teacher preparation, and minimal length of a school year will result in a continuation of this downward spiral. While states' rights provide an important opportunity to balance power, strong national standards for assessment, integrity, and fiscal accountability should lead every state's education systems to ensure the highest quality education while mitigating the damaging results of local partisan preferences.