Congress is Dysfunctional, Education Edition

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

This may seem like a story about education policy, but I think it's actually a story about the breakdown of Congress:

In just five months, the Obama administration has freed schools in more than half the nation from central provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law, raising the question of whether the decade-old federal program has been essentially nullified.

On Friday, the Department of Education plans to announce that it has granted waivers releasing two more states, Washington and Wisconsin, from some of the most onerous conditions of the signature Bush-era legislation. With this latest round, 26 states are now relieved from meeting the lofty — and controversial — goal of making all students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.

....House Republicans have repeatedly protested the Obama administration’s use of waivers as an end-run around Congress.

My understanding is this: when NCLB was being debated in 2001, everyone understood that its goals were unattainable. Here in the real world, no matter how brilliant your teachers are and how solid your curriculum is, you'll never get 100% of your kids to pass a standardized test. NCLB set that 100% goal anyway because (a) "No Child" sounded a lot better in the bill's title than "No More Than a Few Children," and (b) everyone assumed that when the law was reauthorized after its first five years, Congress would lower the 100% number to something more reasonable.

But guess what? Reauthorization didn't happen in 2007. Then we had an election year. Then we had a financial crisis. Then Republicans decided to blindly oppose anything that President Obama favored. And the politics of the whole thing were gruesome. Just as no single party wants to be the one to cut Social Security benefits on its own, what party wants to be the one to lower educational standards on its own? If there's bipartisan cover, that's one thing, but if there's not, you're just opening yourself to obvious demagoguery. Which children do you want to leave behind, Senator Smith? Let's hear their names.

These days, of course, there's no such thing as bipartisan cover, and that means there's no real chance of rationalizing NCLB. At the same time, it's not realistic to declare 100% of America's schools as failures, which is what will happen in 2014 without any waivers. So waivers it is. But it's not because Arne Duncan is exercising tyrannical executive powers to nullify a law he doesn't like. It's because Congress is no longer able to do its job.

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