Commentary

The Bush Years Left Behind

There’s a lot of conjecture about who will be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. At least based on the campaign, however, it shouldn’t matter. Barack Obama’s impending move to the White House, and Democrats’ domination of Capitol Hill, should be the best education news we’ve had in years. Finally, there’s a party in charge that wants to give us back our schools. Well, at least give us back a little.

But wait. Haven’t Democrats brought us the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, U.S. Department of Education, and a cavalcade of other federal schooling intrusions? Sure, but it took George W. Bush, and a Republican congress willing to abandon principle for political power, to go from federal intrusion, to federal control.

For most of the roughly four-decade history of major federal education involvement, Washington has largely dumped dollars, not demands, on American schools. Yes, it has enforced such things as non-discrimination, but federal politicians have generally been content to lavish dollars on failed programs and watch the adulation roll in. It’s only been with enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act that Washington has attached very specific demands to its dough.

The impetus behind the law wasn’t all bad. Tired of watching ever-bigger federal “investments” produce almost no academic returns, many of the law’s supporters were determined to get results. Through NCLB’s detailed standards, testing, and full-proficiency-by-2014 requirements, they hoped to force schools to educate all kids.

But good intentions only go so far. What put NCLB over the top were political, not educational, goals. Republicans had long opposed federal schooling interventions; the Constitution gives Washington no authority over education, and federal bucks typically help politically powerful special interests, not kids. But by late 2001 principle no longer mattered: their President needed a legislative victory, and keeping political power was congressional Republicans’ overriding concern. Add post-9/11 congressional desires to show that they could still do the nation’s business, and NCLB was law.

So the party that for decades stood against federal forays into classrooms brought us the most domineering education law in American history. It seems perversely right, then, that the party long enthusiastic about federal involvement should get us out. And there are signs that that is what an Obama administration will do…to an extent.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama and his surrogates talked about two things when it came to NCLB: spending a lot more money, and using “multiple measures” to assess student progress. Instead of two terrible things—wasted billions and stultifying federal control—Obama would give us just one. Well, maybe one-and-a-half.

[I]n the long run, Washington should neither fund nor control education.”

Allowing multiple measures such as testing and, say, evaluations of accumulated student work, would give states and districts some new latitude in how they assess students, loosening the federal death grip. But that doesn’t mean there would be no compliance requirements: states and districts would almost certainly have to get their measures approved by Washington.

As for the money, underfunding has never been our problem. The United States spends more per pupil than almost any other industrialized nation, and real NCLB funding has risen roughly 40 percent under Bush. Still, more money with less federal domination is better than more of both.

That said, in the long run Washington should neither fund nor control education. As we’ve seen with NCLB—under which states and districts have spent a ton on paper compliance while gaming tests and dodging real accountability—federal rules and funding streams are ultimately bent to benefit public-schooling employees, not the kids they’re supposed to serve. It’s the teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats, after all, who are paid by federal dollars, so their unions and associations fight non-stop for big money and small accountability.

Which brings us to the second and even bigger reason that this past election could be the best education news we’ve had in years: The GOP’s astonishing fall from grace has forced it into self-examination. What the outcome of that will be is unknown, but hopefully Republicans will notice that their greatest victories—Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the 1994 takeover of Congress—came when they offered determined, principled, small-government solutions to big-government problems.

If they learn that lesson, we can expect a renewed determination to get both federal dollars and rules out of our classrooms, and we’ll have Barack Obama and the Democratic Party to thank for it.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom.