It's a story we've heard before. Where President Obama can't legislate, he will use executive branch action to accomplish his agenda. In the past, he has applied that tactic in the auto bailout, EPA regulations, and Obamacare. Now he's using this approach to remake No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—the most significant K-12 education law—by granting states conditional waivers from the onerous provisions of NCLB in exchange for adopting a yet-to-be-specified set of executive branch education policy priorities. The news came in an announcement from the Department of Education:
With the new school year fast approaching and still no bill to reform the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration will provide a process for states to seek relief from key provisions of the law, provided that they are willing to embrace education reform.
The Department of Education is taking this unilateral action in order to insulate schools from NCLB's unintended consequences. NCLB requires all students to be proficient in English and math by 2014, a worthwhile but unrealistic goal that is placing federal heat on schools. As a result, states and local school leaders have been focused on compliance with Washington, not the needs of the children they teach. Heritage's Lindsey Burke explains that "the waiver route is a bad precedent that neither provides long-term relief for states nor solves the underlying problem with accountability, which would be more effective if directed to parents, not bureaucrats." Burke writes:
Circumventing Congress by granting states conditions-based waivers will exacerbate Washington’s decades-long history of failure at improving educational outcomes. In fact, the Administration’s NCLB “blueprint” is NCLB on steroids—ballooning the federal role in education by calling for resource equity among schools and national standards and tests.
One might think that if there is a problem with NCLB, then the President would look to Congress to change the law. But the legislative process on this 600-page law hasn't moved fast enough for his liking, so the Administration has resorted to the quick-fix waivers to make the change it believes in. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) came to the White House's defense, blaming House Republicans for slowing down the legislative process and saying that it's justifiable for the President to act on his own accord:
This Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything. Given the ill-advised and partisan bills that the House majority has chosen to move, I understand Secretary Duncan's decision to proceed with a waiver package to provide some interim relief while Congress finishes its work.
Harkin isn't the only one on the left to lament the slowness of the legislative process. On ABC's This Week on Sunday, pundit Cokie Roberts bemoaned the fact that America's separation of powers created the circumstances leading to Standard & Poor's decision to downgrade the U.S. credit rating: "[T]he problem that we have here is the Constitution of the United States of America which actually does require people to come together from different perspectives whether it's divided government or not. We have divided branches of government under any circumstance."
The White House is well aware of the separation of powers "problem." In a press conference yesterday, White House press secretary Jay Carney was pressed on where President Barack Obama's "sense of urgency" is in light of Standard & Poor's decision to downgrade the U.S. credit rating and whether the President should call Congress back into session to address the problem. His response? "The reality that we live in is that this is -- as set up by the founders -- is a government that has different branches with different amounts of power, and we need to work together to get significant things done, and we’ll continue to do that."
Though Carney says the White House will "work together to get significant things done," the Administration's actions on education this week aren't reflective of that sentiment. In fact, they fly squarely in the face of proposals in Congress to restore state and local control over education and to begin reducing the federal role in education. Burke explains that the House Education and the Workforce Committee has completed significant work on major proposals to restore state control over education and put power in the hands of those closer to the student. But putting power in the hands of the people is not the Obama Administration's goal. Instead, it wants to extend Washington's tentacles into local schools.
The federal government has totally failed to improve America's educational outcomes, and now the Obama Administration has grabbed the wheel of government and is steering us further down a dead-end road. Instead of more Washington red tape, states need more control over their schools. Conditional waivers for NCLB aren't the answer. Instead, Congress should allow states to completely opt out of NCLB through proposals that are approved by Congress. Meanwhile, the White House might want to take a lesson in constitutional governance.