Laboratories of Democracy

Jan 13, 2023 at 03:59 pm by JC Bowman

Justice Louis Brandeis called individual states “laboratories of democracy.” States, he held, can enact their own policies regardless of the actions of other states. Seems simple enough.

Brandeis thought that by experimentation, economic practices, and institutions each state would change to meet social and economic needs. He added that the “denial of the right to experiment may be fraught with serious consequences to the Nation.” To sum it up: “Political institutions should be capable of adapting to changing economic circumstances and social values.”

Michael Greve, a constitutional scholar, differed from Brandeis. He wrote, “Real federalism requires confidence in the creative energies of a free society; a healthy suspicion of interest group schemes; and a willingness to tolerate indeterminacy and variegated results.”

Greve added, “Economic legislation is dominated by lobbyists and their well-heeled clients, who can easily defend their special interest schemes against a mass of rationally ignorant voters. In the social arena, political entrepreneurs can usually mobilize constituencies on both sides of issues that voters readily understand and, moreover, care about.”

Greve suggests that Brandeis was far from “celebrating a genuinely diversified, experimental politics” but rather “viewed state governments as a vanguard for the national administrative state.”

Enter public education. States by design should look different in education. A one size fits all model does not work. Even before Tennessee became a state, our citizens were concerned about the education of children.

With the passage of the Cession Act in 1806, the Tennessee General Assembly created academies in each of the existing counties of the state. By 1835, our new constitution stated that “the general diffusion of knowledge was essential to the preservation of the state’s democratic institutions.” In 1867, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation for the reorganization, supervision, and maintenance of common schools.

These are examples of our historical progress in Tennessee to fund education properly, and our continued struggle from the beginning. As a state, we have been fraught with various problems within education. This has been a battle since the state was founded.

Our state has adapted to changing economic circumstances and social values throughout our history. Still, the point raised by Michael Greve is valid. In education, we are looking more like a national administrative state and less like a laboratory of democracy. One constant we safeguard is that schools must be responsive to parents, not philanthropists or special interest groups. On that front, we have work to do. We need a less invasive federal education system.   

We could easily argue that too many state policies are mere cut-and-paste jobs from other states. That is true in other states as well. It is problematic because each state is different and unique, with different politics and economics. No two states are the same.

We hear and see that partisan politics break connections at the family, neighborhood, and community levels. “Ideological silos” are commonplace on both the left and right. Whatever party controls a state government controls state-level policymaking. This is not the way to create policy, let alone sustain it.

Our education policy is of great concern to many and is tied to our future economic growth. We must do better than a patchwork of confusing or conflicting laws that govern the education of K12 students. That is one reason that in 2002, Florida simply rewrote its school code.   

The most critical element for good government or better public policy is an informed citizen. Advocacy is helpful. Never forget you have a “First Amendment right” to express an opinion to policymakers. In education, they need to hear from parents and educators regularly. That is in line with the creative energies of a free society and helps fuel the state as a laboratory of democracy.


JC Bowman is the CEO and Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee


Sections: Politics Education