Archive for Monday, October 3, 2011

Education waivers have strings attached

October 3, 2011


Obama Gives States a Voice In ‘No Child’  — New York Times, Sept. 24

WASHINGTON — Many Americans, having grown accustomed to Caesarism, probably see magnanimity in that front-page headline. Others, however, read it as redundant evidence of how distorted American governance has become. A president “gives” states a “voice” in education policy concerning grades K through 12? How did this quintessential state and local responsibility become tethered to presidential discretion? Here is how federal power expands, even in the guise of decentralization:

Ohio Sen. Robert Taft (1889-1953) was “Mr. Republican,” revered by conservatives chafing under the domination of the GOP by Eastern money that preferred moderates such as New York Gov. Tom Dewey, the GOP’s 1944 and 1948 presidential nominee. In “The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party,” Michael Bowen, historian at Pennsylvania’s Westminster College, recounts how Taft leavened his small-government orthodoxy with deviations, including federal aid to primary and secondary education.

In the 79th Congress (1945-47), Taft sponsored legislation to provide such education more than $8 billion over 25 years. The sum was huge (the 1947 federal budget was $34.5 billion), and the 25-year horizon said federal intervention would not be temporary. Taft drafted his bill with help from the National Education Association (NEA), the teachers union which today is an appendage of the Democratic Party, except when the relationship is the other way around.

Bowen says Taft’s bill “included provisions to guarantee that states would not cede control of their educational systems to federal authorities.” Guarantee? Today we are wiser.

The bill passed the Senate but died in the House. Such federal aid to education came in 1965, the year of liberals living exuberantly, which produced Medicare and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The latter completed the long repudiation of the idea that some sectors of life are fenced off from federal supervision. In 1976, the NEA made its first endorsement of a presidential candidate; Jimmy Carter reciprocated by creating the Education Department.

George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the eighth reauthorization of the ESEA. It is due for a ninth, but the Obama administration considers the Republican-controlled House of Representatives icky and the separation of powers tiresome, so it is dispensing with legislation in favor of coercion — what has been called “coercive federalism.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan is offering states waivers from NCLB’s most annoying provisions if the states will accept administration conditions for education policy. The slow-motion but steady submission of primary and secondary education to Washington proceeds in the name of emancipation.  

Emancipation, that is, from the lofty idealism of preposterous expectations — NCLB’s loopy decree that by 2014 there will be 100 percent proficiency in reading and math. This incentive to report chimerical progress has produced exactly that: Many states have defined proficiency down so their tests will show more progress than does the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test.  

When Duncan warned (exaggeration in the service of supposedly constructive panic) that 82 percent of the nation’s 100,000 public schools could be labeled failures next year, states clamored for relief, which is offered in the form of waivers: Washington’s dictation of education policy through legislation will be waived if states embrace Washington’s dictation of education policy by executive branch fiat.  

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, questions the “legal authority to grant conditional waivers in exchange for reforms not authorized by Congress.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is less delicate.

In a letter to Duncan, Rubio tartly says the rule of law is at risk: “NCLB allows the secretary to grant waivers for existing provisions under the law, but nowhere does the law authorize waivers in exchange for the adoption of administration-preferred policies.”

Furthermore, Rubio writes, the waivers “would entail states having to adopt a federally approved ‘college and career ready’ curriculum: either the national Common Core curriculum standards, or another federally approved equivalent.” Rubio says: “Such activities are unacceptable; they violate three existing laws” that “prohibit the federal government from creating or prescribing a national curriculum.”

For the sake of argument, let us, as lawyers say, stipulate that the measures Duncan’s waivers would make mandatory are the niftiest ideas for education since Socrates sat down on a log with a student. That is beside the point. Two points, actually:

The expansion of federal power inevitably expands executive discretion that marginalizes Congress. And since Taft, we have lived and learned.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is


cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

Both NCLB and the federal Department of Education should be abolished, with public education left entirely to the states. Block grants with no strings attached could be considered, but that's it. One has to have his head in the sand not to recognize the terribly deleterious effect over the last five decades that ever-increasing federal involvement in, and now virtual control of, most aspects of public education has had on what used to be outstanding local public school systems in America.

Get the federal government out of public education, get rid of NCLB and all other dumbed-down, outcomes-based stupidity, and let the teachers teach.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

The obvious problem with the above idea is the lack of consistent nationwide standards.

If we want to guarantee a minimum level of education for all American children, we need to at least have consistent national standards to measure that.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

I'm not referring to this new "standards based" stuff, which I have no opinion on.

I just mean that in order for public education to offer a consistent, and at least minimum level of education for all American children, there must be consistent national standards that are used to measure their progress.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

If you want to guarantee "a minimum level of education for all American children," that's exactly what you'll get.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 7 months ago

Having national standards sounds like a great idea. Not going to happen. Not now, not ever. And Cato is correct, "minimum" is what you'll get. The question becomes, if we eliminate the level of bureaucracy that exists at the federal dept. of education and "if" that money can then be spent by all the states, could that minimum be raised throughout the states, even if that level is not equal from state to state.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

The whole idea of NCLB is to guarantee national standards, and I think it's basically a good idea. Implementation is lacking in a few ways, but that could be tweaked.

The question is interesting - disband all the federal agencies, but send the same amounts to the states? So much for cutting federal spending :-)

I don't know if every child in public school would then get a better education or not - if they would, I'd consider it - but the inconsistency part still bothers me.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 7 months ago

NCLB was an attempt, not a guarantee. And from all indications, it's been a failure. I don't blame the failure too much on the policy. It was probably a good faith effort to solve a long standing problem. But that's the rub. The problem, schools that are failing our children has been a problem for many generations now. NCLB didn't take a good system and ruin it. All it did was waste more money and more years. And the next policy will waste more time and more money, regardless of what that policy is or who tries to implement it.
The federal Dept. Of Education was largely begun with an attempt to guarantee that schools primarily in the South spent as much money as schools in the Northeast, on the assumption that those schools in the rural South were discriminating against Blacks by simply not spending as much money there as we were in the more enlightened and more White regions. In theory, it's a laudable goal. But one has to acknowledge that after a certain amount of time, you've either succeeded or you've failed. Or perhaps you've made some progress and that you're not likely to make additional gains. But there has to be a cost/benefit analysis at some time. Tens of billions of dollars are spent. What have we got for that money.
During the years when those goals were implemented, minorities held few public offices in the targeted regions. Is that still true. Simply taking money from those regions, sending it to Washington and sending some part of it back with stings attached may have been a way of bypassing the discriminatory practices of those days. But is it true now? Minority elected officials are all over the place. Maybe it's time to just let them keep the money and spend it they way see fit. Especially since sending the money to Washington for the past many decades has not produced the desired results. Maybe the South of 60 years ago is not the South of today. And maybe the days of thinking Washington can solve all the problems better than local communities has changed as well.

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