A Teaching Moment

Apr 15 2016

More than seven years into the Obama administration, one would hope that Congress would have come to grips with the president’s will-to-power approach to politics.

On every issue – from health care and immigration to welfare and energy – President Obama has proven that he will abide by the letter of the law only to the extent that it conforms with his preferred policy outcome.

There is no policy area where this pattern of behavior has been more clearly established than education.

From day one, President Obama used stimulus dollars to try to bribe states to adopt common core standards. Then when that money ran out, he tried to leverage the stringent testing standards in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to achieve the same goal.

Under that law, a school could be deemed as “failing” by the federal education bureaucracy if it did not meet excessively high standardized testing benchmarks. But if a state agreed to adopt common core, the Obama administration promised to waive the NCLB penalties.

Nothing in NCLB allowed Obama to use the law to force common core on the states in this manner, but he did it anyway.

Given these glaring lessons of recent history, one would have hoped that Congress would make sure that the law that replaced NCLB – the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was debated and passed in December of last year – included enforceable protections against similar violations of the law by the president. But, as I pointed out at the time in an op-ed for the Deseret News, although the bill included limitations on the education secretary’s authority to coerce states into adopting federal standards, “[w]ithout 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."

Now, just months later, President Obama’s new education secretary is doing exactly that. Education Week reports that the Department of Education’s draft rule for implementing ESSA will require states to change how they currently fund their schools in a way that will “force teacher transfers to equalize spending on salaries between schools, and significantly disrupt how districts allocate money and resources.”

This is exactly the kind of top-down micromanagement of education policy that has failed to produce any meaningful improvements in academic achievement – especially for students from low-income communities – over the past 50 years. States should be free to allocate their education resources as they see fit. Bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be dictating which teachers work in which schools.

But this is exactly what happens when Congress delegates too much power to executive-branch agencies. This is what happens when Congress simply trusts – but does not verify – that the executive branch will follow the law.

The only way to stop the executive branch from abusing its power is to not give it power in the first place.

Instead of funneling money through Washington bureaucrats before sending it to America’s school districts and classrooms, federal-education dollars should follow the students to any public or private school of their choice.

Until we do that, we should not act surprised when the same centralized education model works to the benefit of central planners and bureaucratic busybodies, instead of parents, teachers, and students.