Opinion writer

Obama Gives
States a Voice

In ‘No Child’

— New York Times, Sept. 24

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 kindergarten through 12th grade? 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 that federal intervention would not be temporary. Taft drafted his bill with help from the National Education Association (NEA), the teachers union that today is an appendage of the Democratic Party, except when the relationship is the other way around.

Bowen says that 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) legislation 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 Committee on Education and the Workforce, 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 that 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 that 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.