Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.
The president has decided to take a tack on the largest federal education law he certainly wishes were available in budget battles: bypassing Congress and legislating through administrative agencies by offering states waivers in exchange for education policies he favors.
Adjacent to President Obama's press conference Monday concerning the national credit downgrade, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stepped up to blame Congress for failing to reauthorize No Child Left Behind by the fall deadline Duncan set. So, Duncan says, in September he will issue criteria for receiving Department of Education waivers.
A president and cabinet member insisting Congress do its job attends normal politics, but deciding to usurp another federal branch because the administration wants to beat the drum more quickly is not only breathtakingly arrogant but also illegal and unconstitutional. This portends great danger for states and schools.
This great danger is a growth of bureaucracy and rule by central administration, as opposed to governance by transparently established law within a system of checks and balances. States get about 10 percent of their education funds from the feds, but the feds create about a third of their paperwork. Like Obama's Race to the Top grants, states will have to hire armies of administrators at enormous cost to make proposals they hope will please the president, then continue funding this bureaucracy to prove they are fulfilling their programmatic promises.
The administration has also seized this self-created opportunity to push states and schools into policies including a national curriculum. In its announcement, the administration said "college and career-ready standards" will be a criterion for waivers. The only such standards to currently exist are Common Core standards, which the administration tied to Race to the Top wins and is currently funding K-12 curriculum to accompany. How ironic, then, that Duncan accused NCLB of "forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don't work." It seems he believes in one-size-fits-all solutions, as long as he and Obama pick them.
How, exactly, does this overhead and massive federal energy create better education opportunities for children? It doesn't. Instead, it reveals just how much of their birthright states are willing to sell.
That's the central turning point, the same facing Americans in every other current political debate: will we be a republic of laws that create the space for individual freedom, or will we be a democratic mob ruled by central fiat? With this decision, as with a long train of others, the Obama administration has declared its distaste for the American republic and preference for dictatorial control.