No Soda for You!

One can find more evidence of the erosion of true federalism in the state of Utah.  In a report proffered by Jonathon M. Seidl for The Blaze this past Thursday, a Salt Lake City-area high school is forced to pay a $15,000 fine for operating a soda machine during school hours.  The administrators for Davis High School must now find alternative means to fund fine arts programs or cut the programs accordingly.  The report by Mr. Seidl indicates that the operation of the vending machine during school hours was "accidental," as it occurred during lunch hour.  As stated in the report:

Federal law requires the school to turn off its soda machines during the lunch period, which is 47 minutes a day. And Davis High school did turn off the machines in the lunch room. However, the school didn't realize that there was another machine in the school bookstore that wasn't being turned off. And when the food police realized it, the school was hit with a $0.75 fine per student for the duration of the offense.

A little on the Draconian side, wouldn't you think?  This is yet another entry in a growing compendium of similar events across the country in America's public schools.  A related theme to this Utah incident was explored in another American Thinker article earlier this year ("School Lunches and Tyranny").  In that report, a North Carolina school functionary confiscated the home-prepared lunch of a preschooler because that person deemed the little girl's lunch nutritionally inadequate.  The girl's meal was replaced with a cafeteria-prepared offering more suitable to the government's standards.

One of the sideline issues preoccupying the current Obama administration and the popular culture is the growing problem of obesity in America, and particularly the alarming rise of childhood obesity.  As such, Michelle Obama has seized upon this cause célèbre for her signature "First Lady project" in the style of all other first ladies since the days of Jacqueline Kennedy.  However, instead of Kennedy's historical White House restoration project, or Barbara Bush's Foundation for Family Literacy, the campaign against obesity championed by Obama has carried a connotation of actual federalized policy, with consequences of compelled budgetary requirements.  To be fair, Obama's program of installing some 6,000 salad bars in the nation's high schools is not entirely tax-funded, as companies like Whole Foods and the United Fresh Produce Association will provide much of the start-up cost and material for the project.  But, like so many other well-intentioned programs devised by statists, it will not take long for these salad bars to descend into unfunded mandates, saddling the local school districts with additional direct costs and regulatory compliance costs that they can ill afford.  This does not even begin to address the legality of imposing such programs or the efficacy of such efforts.  Will there be follow-on federally mandated studies to observe obesity rates vis-à-vis the presence of these new salad stations?  What will be the measure(s) of success?  What will be the subsequent policy/program initiative when no observable improvements are observed?  These questions apparently are not being asked.

These examples are but a small segment of the Faustian bargains local and state authorities routinely make with the federal government.  Local administrators, wide-eyed and anxious to let local citizens know just how effective they have been in bringing federal grants and program monies to their districts, impetuously jump at the chance to shower their schools with largesse.  It is all done for the benefit of the children, of course.  However, these grants come with a heavy price.  Much of it will be borne by future generations, as these grants are but a part of a $15.7-trillion and growing national debt which promises to utterly erode the quality of life of the very children the programs are meant to benefit.

Setting aside the dynamics of the astronomical national debt that threatens the nation, there are other considerations at play with the ethics of federally funded school programs.  What is missing all too often in the discussion is the loss of federalism and individual state sovereignty.  No school monies are given by Washington without severe conditions.  The $15,000 fine on Davis High School is but an example of a national government that will dictate terms of operation to any and all who accept the money.  As federal revenue-sharing and block-grants have given way to targeted programs, executive branch agencies as typified by the Department of Education exert increasing coercive pressure on schools to do their bidding.  One consequence is that local and state governments become prone to reliance upon these grants, fostering allocation for other existing or even new programs that might not otherwise exist.  This always results in larger government.  Secondly, federal guidelines for expenditure of grants are bureaucratically intensive, while uniform in application.  In other words, much is expended in the way of unseen administrative costs for regulatory compliance, while the guidelines may have varying degrees of relevance to local applications.  The uniqueness of a state or regional school district is marginalized in the effort to comply.  This is not what Thomas Jefferson had envisioned as a model for American federalism.

When states and local governments accept the ill-gotten monies of federal grants, they cede sovereignty to the federal government, plain and simple.  It creates a dependency not unlike a drug addict's to his dealer.  They lose the capability to streamline spending, to innovate, and to nimbly respond to local conditions.  They forget that the money they receive first comes from taxpayers, who are incrementally losing their ability to have any say in how the money is spent.  Local schools that may wish to provide activities or formulate curricula specific to their towns and counties are restrained.  Federally mandated curricula begin to supersede more regional or local instruction, which promises to homogenize and sanitize every facet of learning.  From scientific theories of alleged man-made global warming to total revision of true American history, the federal government slowly, inexorably becomes the final arbiter of what can and cannot be taught.  It reaches down to the very foods the children are permitted to consume, parental rights be damned.  Refusal to comply with these impositions at the local level results in fiscal punishment.

In a November 2010 press announcement from the Utah Education Association (UEA), the state of Utah accepted federal funding in the amount of $101 million to augment a total state budget of approximately $3.36 billion for public education in FY2011.  This roughly three percent of the funding carries a far greater price in the form of loss of autonomy than the mere numbers indicate.  Just ask the school officials at Davis High School what they think.

But the representatives of the UEA feel differently, as noted from their announcement:

The Utah Education Association praises the Utah legislators who stood up for Utah students and voted in favor of accepting more than $101 million in federal funding for Utah schools. The federal education jobs money targeted for Utah will have a dual benefit of improving educational quality and boosting Utah's economy.

"We are disheartened that some legislators elected to pit their personal ideology against Utah's children and our flagging economy," said UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh. "Fortunately, in the end, reason prevailed over rhetoric...and our students will be the benefactors."

The schools are on the front lines of the battle for the soul of America.  They are the veritable canary in the mineshaft for the survival of federalism and the separation of powers as intended by the framers of the Constitution.  Yes, all politics is local -- for what happens in the local school boards and PTA meetings has direct bearing on the future financial health and liberty of all who live in the Republic.

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