Nine years ago, only a crazy man would have written the headline above. The Democratic Party, a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions, brought us the money sinkhole known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the tuition-exploding Higher Education Act, and the crowned jewel of bureaucratic worthlessness and educational futility, the U.S. Department of Education. In the meantime, the Republican Party fought to expel Washington from the classrooms where, like the out-of-control kid with the stink bombs who keeps everyone else from learning, it simply did not belong.
And then George W. Bush happened. Flinging around talk of “compassionate conservatism” and decrying the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” Bush, with the complicity of congressional Republicans more interested in legislative (read: political) victory than rational policy, gave us the No Child Left Behind Act. What did the law do? It forced all states to create math, reading, and science standards and tests, required detailed reporting, and then, to enable politicians to simultaneously claim both toughness and a love of local control, left it states to write their own standards, tests, and implement the law. Oh, and it authorized—and ultimately produced—big increases in federal education spending. In other words, it let politicians claim to be everything to all people, while massively increasing federal bureaucratic burdens and encouraging all states to set their standards as low as they could go. Not surprisingly, while we cannot with certainty attribute any specific results to NCLB, academic outcomes under it have been poor, with gains where there had previously been some slowing, and other scores just dropping.
So why the headline above? Because while president-elect Obama has been very clear that he wants to increase federal education spending yet again, he has also hinted that he would decrease NCLB’s rigidly bureaucratic requirements. In addition, while the teachers unions are a big threat if given federal power, they tend to like money without accountability, meaning that, yes, they’ll push the Dems to set the cash spigot on “deluge,” but they’ll also resist federal rules. Put simplistically, instead of Washington doing two terrible things, it will do only one.
Unfortunately, this will likely be just a short-term gain. In the long term, there is little doubt that Democratic control would lead to both profligate federal spending and more government meddling, though this time pushing progressive education ideas. But that is where the second and more critical component to resurrecting small government in education will hopefully come in: renewed Republican opposition to unconstitutional and educationally worthless federal education intrusion. If the GOP should have learned anything from its astonishing fall from grace and power during the Bush years, it’s that big government doesn’t work, and selling your soul to get it doesn’t get you re-elected. No prescription drug bill, $700 billion bailout, or No Child Left Behind Act, has kept the GOP in the Washington majority.
There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that Republicans will learn this lesson; a big fight is no doubt coming between small-government realists and those committed to the Dem-light days of Bob Michel and Richard Nixon. If they do get the message, however, education, where for so long the Republican Party was clear that the feds did not belong, would be the perfect place to start applying the painful lessons they have learned.