Don't Tie the Next President's Hands on Education

December 15, 2015

There is much to like in the Deseret News’ Dec. 6, editorial, “Utah’s congressional delegation confronts a changing Washington environment.”

The editorial correctly notes that Paul Ryan’s recent election as speaker of the House is an encouraging development. I wholeheartedly agree. It was an honor to accept Ryan’s invitation to introduce him at his first major policy address at the Library of Congress last week. He outlined a bold and innovative conservative policy agenda that Republicans can begin implementing under a new president in 2017.

The editorial also correctly criticizes the current “all or nothing” environment in Washington, which has led to far too many fiscal cliffs, legislative logjams and government by crisis. As Ronald Reagan advised, conservatives should be ready to take half a loaf when they can get it, and then come back for the other half later.

Unfortunately, the Every Student Succeeds Act that Congress passed this week prevents conservatives from doing exactly that. And it enshrines some pretty terrible education policy into law in the meantime.

Proponents of the bill claim that ESSA “allows states to set their own academic standards.” What proponents of the bill do not tell you is that the bill also gives the secretary of education final veto power of all state education plans. If he doesn’t like a state’s academic standards, he can deny that state’s plan and withhold its funding. This is a substantial stick that could force states to implement federally preferred education plans.

Proponents of the bill also claim that ESSA replaces the federal “accountability system with state-designed accountability systems.” What they do not tell you is that that the bill keeps most of the old No Child Left Behind annual testing mandates in place.

Proponents of the bill correctly note that the bill does eliminate federally mandated teacher evaluations. But while that particular stick may have been eliminated, the bill also spends almost $3 billion on teacher training carrots that only increase federal influence on what is taught in our classrooms.

Proponents of the bill also argue that the bill “limits” the education secretary’s “authority to prescribe interventions and school improvement strategies.” What they fail to mention is that there were already three similar prohibitions on the secretary (in three federal statutes: No Child Left behind, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the General Education Provisions Act) that the secretary violated in the process of implementing Common Core the first time. Without a substantial enforcement mechanism — losing money — a future secretary will be just as able to side-step words intended to roll back his or her authority.

Finally, proponents of the bill also claim that it “consolidates dozens of individual federal programs into a single block grant for education.” This is just plain false. While the bill does collapse some programs into others, it also creates six brand new grant programs, leaving about 40 total different programs for states to navigate.

Reasonable people can disagree about the bargain ESSA struck. Maybe a 12 percent increase in education spending is worth getting rid of mandatory teacher evaluations. Maybe giving Hillary Clinton a $250 million down payment on her federal pre-K agenda is worth consolidating a few programs.

But if you are looking ahead to 2017, if you want to set the table for “effective political leadership in an incremental collaborative environment” under a new Republican president, then the ESSA is a disaster.

The bill reauthorizes K-12 federal educational policy through 2020 — the end of the next president’s first term in office. That means this bill effectively handcuffs the next president on education policy, effectively preventing any conservative education reform from being advanced.

And that is a tragedy. The entire Utah delegation is united behind a conservative vision of local control for K-12 and pre-K education. We almost certainly will not reach that vision in one “all or nothing” step. We most certainly should be willing to accept incremental steps towards conservative goals.

But details matter. As President Obama has taught us, the Department of Education will find the tiniest loophole for federal control, and then force an aircraft carrier through it. This bill leaves far too many of those loopholes wide open.

More importantly it prevents conservatives from coming back later under the next president to achieve more incremental reform. That is a loss for all Utahns, and that is why I am pleased our entire Utah House delegation voted against the bill.