Reflecting on the Affordable Care Act Ruling

Today the Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, which means that what was probably the signature domestic policy priority of the Obama administration will remain in law unless it is changed or repealed by Congress in the future.  I’m not a lawyer, or a speed reader, so I won’t comment on the full decision of the Court.  But I will share a few quick reactions.

SCOTUS, as it has become fashionable to call the Supreme Court of the United States, is one remarkable institution, fully willing and capable of issuing rulings that surprise even the wisest of constitutional scholars and other pundits.  In this case the big surprise was the role of Chief Justice Roberts, who sided with the majority and wrote the main opinion defending the “individual mandate” as a tax allowable by the constitution.  Justice Roberts may have longer-term constitutional or political goals, but on the surface his decision may put him in the category of Chief Justices who surprised – and probably annoyed – the Presidents who appointed them.   I’m thinking here of Earl Warren, for example, and his role in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case that ended the legality of “separate but equal.”  That case had such a huge impact on our national consciousness about the historical stain of discrimination, and set us on a path (which we are still on) to correct social and historical inequities in the provision of education for all children.

Speaking of education, today’s ruling brings to mind at least two other ideas.  First, it’s important to remember the connections between health, educational achievement and long-term economic success.  Everywhere in the world data are collected on economic inequality, health, and schooling, the evidence is pretty clear: poverty and illness correlate with poor academic performance.  As Sarah Sparks of Education Week noted in her blog today, recent evidence on the specific relationships between child health and academic progress suggests that perhaps as a result of the Supreme Court decision we will have more children covered by insurance, who will therefore have better odds of being healthy, and who will therefore likely do better in school.  Let’s hope so, anyway.

Second, and here I’m really going to display my lack of expertise on matters of the law, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the SCOTUS decision will set a new precedent, or at least open a new public conversation, about the role of taxation in the way we fund and manage public education.  If I understand Justice Roberts’s argument, the constitution grants broad federal tax authority, which generations of policy makers have used not only to raise revenues, but also to influence socially productive behavior.  In this case because insurance markets tend to fail unless everyone participates, the policy idea of using tax authority is to make sure that everyone has access to health insurance.  Justice Roberts apparently specified in the decision that it was not his or the court’s business to judge the merits of the policy, only its constitutionality.

My question is whether this approach (which was used in the case of Social Security taxes and Medicare for example), which is so fundamentally about the notion of health as a public good for which the self-imposed coercion of the tax system is legitimate, might be extended to education.  If we believe that education, too, is a public good (which I strongly believe), then perhaps we are now going to be able to develop some innovative federal strategies to increase funding to students and communities most in need.  Is there a way to think of investments in education as a form of insurance?  Just a thought, and I welcome reactions from folks who know more about the legal (and economic) nuances.  By the way, if we succeed in developing a joint program between GSEHD and the GW Law School, I imagine we will be able to focus on this sort of problem with expertise and innovative thinking.

MJF
June 28, 2012 

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