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.