I Was Wrong on The Every Student Succeeds Act

I was wrong. When the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in late 2015, I identified two ambiguities I thought were most ripe for exploitation to keep the federal boot hovering over public schools: the requirement that states have “challenging” curricular standards and that standardized tests be given “much greater” weight in accountability systems than non-academic measures.

Certainly, DC may still seize upon these words to extend control. But according to a Friday New York Times report, it is the law’s call for “ambitious” student performance goals—a term not defined in statute—that the Trump administration, which I thought would be highly deferential to states (wrong again!), is citing to reject state plans:

In the department’s letter to Delaware—which incited the most outrage from conservative observers—[Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Jason] Botel took aim at the state’s plan to halve the number of students not meeting proficiency rates in the next decade. Such a goal would have resulted in only one-half to two thirds of some groups of students achieving proficiency, he noted.

The department deemed those long-term goals, as well as those for English-language learners, not ambitious, and directed the state to revise its plans to make them more so.

And so we remain pretty much where we were under the Obama administration in education, and where we are with every law that leaves it to regulatory agencies to fill in the meaning of crucial terms: with states, localities, and the people at the mercy of bureaucrats and secretaries. Government increasingly of men and not laws.

Alas, this bureaucratically dictatorial state of affairs is okay with some people in DC. In an exchange this weekend, a former Obama administration spokesman lauded the regulatory process as a “transparent” and “consistent” way to “fill in the blanks left by the law”:

Really? I sure can’t see how the regulatory process is “transparent” in any meaningful sense. Here is the web page to follow the ESSA regulatory process, and here is the “Notice of Final Regulation” for just one part of the ESSA. Read it all over. Now imagine every parent—with a full-time job, soccer practices to get the kids to, maybe even a desire for some leisure time—trying to read and influence every regulation for ESSA.

Done imagining? The painful reality, of course, is that making law by regulation is even more beyond the ability of an average American to follow and influence than the writing of actual laws. The ESSA itself is almost 400 single-spaced pages long.

Loads of atrocious problems are at work here—no apparent concern for whether the governed can know and understand the laws governing them; legislators sloughing off their responsibilities to bureaucrats—but underlying it all has been widespread disregard for the Constitution and its clear delegation of only specific, enumerated powers to the federal government, none of which mention education.

I was wrong about the specific opening by which the ESSA might be used to maintain federal control over the nation’s public schools. But in stating that federal control is itself unconstitutional, and rule by bureaucrats especially egregious, I remain clearly in the right.