Obama Seeks to Control Education Through Waivers

A new tale of presidential waiver abuse is brewing, and this time it has nothing to do with ObamaCare.  The President is preparing to grant waivers from the decade-old “No Child Left Behind” program, a huge transfer of educational authority from states to the federal government, with a hefty $25 billion annual price tag. 

After chugging along for ten years, NCLB has not accumulated much of a fan base.  Is the Obama waiver program a relatively well-intentioned attempt to legislate through executive fiat: unraveling a badly frayed law, returning control to the states, and encouraging innovation?

Keep dreaming!  Of course Obama would never do anything that reduced federal power.  No, these waivers are an attempt to centralize control of education even more. 

Among other things, NCLB sets difficult educational performance goals for states to meet, and our current public education system is not very good at meeting difficult goals.  Obama is offering the states a way to escape from NCLB’s demands… but in exchange, they have to adopt the Administration’s agenda in a number of key areas.  The power of the Department of Education would increase tremendously.  As the House Committee on Education and the Workforce puts it in a press release:

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration seems determined to override Congressional efforts to reform the law and enact a backdoor education agenda. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continues to push forward an ill-conceived plan to offer states and school districts waivers in exchange for reforms rooted not in the law but in the secretary’s own education agenda. Despite Chairman Kline’s efforts to gain more details about what these conditional waivers may entail, the Secretary refuses to provide any information about the administration’s controversial proposal.

In other words, the states would go from being pushed around by Congress to being micro-managed by the Administration.  Education policy would become the latest area of American life that our elected congressional representatives no longer get to vote on.  As Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation notes:

While Obama is pushing his education agenda on states, he is doing so under the guise of flexibility. Yet, temporary relief bound by the strings of greater federal regulation is anything but flexible.

For nearly five decades, Washington has attempted to improve schools with top-down policies. Rather than helping students achieve, this has only extended federal overreach. Pulling states more tightly into the grip of central government will do nothing to loosen the red tape ensnaring the nation’s education system.

States need education reform that offers true flexibility—allowing states to meet the needs of students rather than toe the line set by Washington.

There aren’t too many examples of ruinous central planning more vivid than the collapse of American public education.  The growth of the Department of Education, and the rising power of teachers’ unions, came at the expense of educational quality.  There’s nothing particularly complicated about this, because centralization destroys accountability.  The “suggestion box” for public schools has been moving further and further from individual parents and communities.  Bad teachers became almost impossible to get rid of, and the educational establishment responded to every criticism with angry demands for more money.  The money and power amassed by the educational establishment is almost comically inverse to their performance.

The last thing public education needs is further centralization.  We don’t want to concentrate power in the hands of a vast underperforming bureaucracy whose performance will become one of a thousand data points in the election or re-election of a single politician, once every four years.  The last thing Americans need is for the current President to grab more power by selling “Get Out Of Legislation Free” cards that turn out to be anything but “free.”