Beating Back Big (Ed.) Brother?

It certainly seems quixotic to try to reverse the federal invasion of American education—it’s “for the children,” for crying out loud!—but there are signs that the forces of constitutional and educational good might be making progress. The fact of the matter is that people seemingly across the ideological spectrum have had it with the illogical, rigid, and failed No Child Left Behind Act, and very few people want to keep that sort of thing in place.

What’s the evidence of this?

For one, both Senate Republicans and Democrats are putting out NCLB reauthorization bills that would significantly reduce the mandates the current law puts on states, including the hated and utterly unrealistic full-proficiency-by-2014 deadline. On the House side, Republicans have for months been advancing bills aimed at reducing the size and prescriptiveness of Washington’s edu-occupation. The White House, too, has been arguing that NCLB is far too bureaucratic. Finally, GOP presidential candidates are returning to what was, before the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, an obvious Republican position: there should be no U.S. Department of Education whatsoever.

So perhaps NCLB will be remembered as the high-water mark of federal school control.

Perhaps, but we’re nowhere near the promised land yet.

First, there is the extremely troubling way the Obama administration is pushing NCLB aside: issuing states waivers from the law, but only if they implement administration-dictated measures, including ”college and career ready standards,” a euphemism for federal curriculum control. But even if they were demanding that states adopt universal private school choice, this would be extremely dangerous, and far beyond just education. The administration is for all intents and purposes unilaterally making law: no separation of powers, no Congressional approval—nothing! Essentially, the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of man, and no one should stand for that even if they think, as I do, that No Child Left Behind is an absolute dud. It reminds me of of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.

And then there are those federal standards, the supposedly “state-led and voluntary” Common Core standards that Washington just happens to have repeatedly shoved onto states, whether through Race to the Top or waivers. They are perhaps the greatest threat to educational freedom we’ve yet seen, holding the potential to let Washington dictate what every child in America will learn, no matter how controversial, or unproven, or unfit for any kids who are not “the average.”

Fortunately, resistance to these, too, seems to be gaining traction. Perhaps the most heartening evidence is Prof. Jay Greene having been invited a few weeks ago to testify on national standards before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Jay terrifically summarized the myriad logical and empirical failings of national standards generally, and the Common Core specifically, and having his testimony out there is useful in and of itself. But more important is that at least some people in Congress are paying attention to this largely—and intentionally—under-the-radar conquest. Meanwhile, there is evidence that in at least some states that have adopted the Common Core people are becoming aware of it and starting to ask questions. At the very least, these happenings offer reason to hope that national standards supporters won’t keep getting away with just repeating the fluff logic of “a modern nation needs a single standard, and don’t worry, the Common Core has been rated as good by all us Common Core supporters.”

What has for a long time seemed impossible is suddenly feeling a bit more plausible: withdrawing the Feds from our kids’ classrooms. But there’s a huge amount still to do, and gigantic threats staring us in the face.