Congress is Dysfunctional, Education Edition

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

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.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.