Now that even mainstream outlets have thoroughly debunked the president's second "jobs stimulus" as a set of gimmicks, the president seems to be casting about for a winning issue. President Obama has this week hopped from jobs to the U.N., Israel, the deficit, Libya, and Afghanistan and now, this morning, to education.
Unfortunately, the president's proposals on addressing the problems with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are as worn and gimmicky as his jobs bill. Worse, the administration's central approach to the largest federal education law has become disregarding Congress and the rule of law, by issuing states waivers in exchange for implementing the administration's pet education policies. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan hinted at this summer, Obama reaffirmed he would abuse the executive branch's authority by effectively legislating from the White House.
"Congress hasn't been able to do it," Obama said, noting that NCLB has been due for reauthorization since 2007 and states had complained loudly about it long before. "So, I will."
Unfortunately, these actions breach both NCLB, which allows the Education department to grant waivers but not as quid pro quo, and the Constitution, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) noted in a grave letter to Duncan earlier this month. "This initiative is an overstep of authority that undermines existing law, and violates the constitutional separation of powers," Rubio wrote.
States must meet three criteria for receiving a waiver from NCLB's requirements for schools marked "failing," Obama outlined today: implement "college and career-ready standards," tie part of teacher evaluations to student test scores, and develop an independent plan to fix their worst 15 percent of schools. The first requirement, as conservatives have repeatedly complained, is not-so-coded speech for implementing a national curriculum through states adopting the Common Core (44 have done so), a set of standards marked mediocre by independent research and so important to the administration that the Department of Education has been violating three federal laws to develop curriculum that fits them.
Obama is right about one thing: NCLB needs to see legislative action. The sweeping bill greatly expanded the federal government's sway over education, sending states lots more money but requiring much in return. Now, Obama and Duncan would like to continue giving states lots of education money, but release them from accountability for it. That's exactly backward. The federal government should instead cut its education bureaucracy and funds, which rest on shaky constitutional authority anyway (the Constitution nowhere grants the federal government power to affect education), and get its sticky fingers away from central control of America's schools.
Of course, Obama prefers the opposite. Congress be damned.
Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute.