THE WORLD HAS changed since the federal system was written into the Constitution in 1787, making states sovereign except for functions reserved to the national government. It's changed since last decade. Every communications improvement that brings the foreign world closer and makes the United States more intimate tips the scales from state to national sovereignty.
Most nations have faced this by ending or loosening monopoly restrictions within the national market so that their firms might compete more effectively in the global marketplace. Most don't have federalism to deal with.
The federal United States went very centralized in response to the nationally shared traumas of this century: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War.
But recently the conservative movement within both right and left wings of the U.S. body politic has given lip service to peeling back national government and reviving earlier federalism.
In welfare, particularly, this means giving responsibilities back to states along with some means to deal with them. It gives legislatures and governors greater discretion on what services to provide at what cost.
Governors wanted this, until they got it, when they complained.
The new idea is to increase the existing competition among states for economic development that already favors low expenditure over quality of services.
Now welfare, Medicaid and poverty are added factors in a competition among 50 supposedly separate economies with reward for those states meanest toward their poor.
Since this enjoys President Clinton's blessing, his foray into education while addressing Congress and the Maryland General Assembly comes as a surprise. The zigger is zagging.
Education never was Washington's responsibility in this country. Federalism was always strongest in the schools. Local control is held sacred, with some state supervision.
This has come under attack in several state courts over equity of funding between rich and poor districts. New Jersey is going into convulsions over this. Maryland is trying to decide whether to take it seriously.
But now the president wants to create national standards for math and science, in effect, a national curriculum. He thinks the children aren't tested enough.
That caters to a conservative impulse, too, the feeling that the quality of education is not good and getting worse, blaming liberal attack on such sinews of national unity as grammar.
Mr. Clinton is aware that the idea of improving schools is popular. It is a market-tested issue.
The catch is that dragging national power into an issue changes perceptions of the issue. That is what sandbagged Mr. Clinton last term on health-care delivery.
The education initiative is an attempt at a major innovation for which the Clinton presidency would be favorably remembered. It is intended to avoid the mistakes of the health-care initiative.
Of course, the Department of Education cannot improve schools. It doesn't teach. It interfaces with state departments of education, which don't teach.
A major federal initiative is likely to increase the percent of the education dollar that goes to administration, with less trickling through to the classroom where teaching and learning occur.
Subsidizing computers for all the schools in America, by contrast, would at least get some computers to some schools.
To federalize education while defederalizing welfare is a strange inconsistency.
Going the same constitutional direction in both fields would make more sense and be easier to rationalize.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 2/15/97