GRAVES: NCLB highlights need for changeChance should be taken to return education to states.
By: Joe Graves, The Daily Republic
I finally got around to reading Michael Crichton’s last book, “Micro.”
(Technically, “Next” was Crichton’s last book, because he died soon after, but then somebody found “Pirate Latitudes,” a manuscript he had apparently finished but then deep-sixed because he thought it was terrible. He was right. He didn’t actually finish “Micro,” but his literary heirs thought it too good or too lucrative, so they hired another author to finish it. That turned out to be a good call.)
In it, through the power of high gravity-field-producing technology, human beings can be shrunk down to the size of a toenail clipping. Once inside the then micro-world that surrounds them, the mini men and women find themselves battling all sorts of creatures that naturally inhabit the world at that scale. (Hint: Stay away from anthills.)
It is an illustration of the old maxim that everyone fights at their own level. Kindergartners will squabble over line-cutting or table boundaries while adults find such arguments laughably unimportant. But we all brawl over things that matter to us even if, upon reflection, we can see how irrelevant it probably is in the larger scheme of things.
A case in point was the recent announcement by the federal Department of Education that it was approving waivers for 10 states to opt-out of the No Child Left Behind mandates in favor of a state-developed accountability system. For those of you who have read my views on NCLB over the last decade — both of you (Hi, Mom!) — you are already aware of the fact that I am opposed to federal programming in education. The United States Constitution does not discuss schools and so reserves education policy to the states. Yet, early on in the Bush administration, the president and Congress approved NCLB, which held schools to strict accountability standards for student achievement, requiring that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. That this was essentially impossible didn’t seem to bother the legislative or executive branches at the time because, hey, that’s more than 10 years away, and besides, it is politically uncomfortable to name a program “Not Very Many Children Left Behind.”
By 2010, having given the program such a cool, visionary name, the legislators and leaders of the federal DOE couldn’t figure out any way to back away from it, even when it was becoming increasingly obvious that the vast majority of schools would soon fail to meet the standards and children everywhere would be attending “failing schools.” It’s not that the feds failed to be proactive; they haven’t even managed to be reactive.
But then a different level acted. States, including South Dakota, started informing the federal DOE that they would no longer be complying with the law or at least parts of it. The Congress, which was by its own law supposed to reauthorize NCLB, was unable to act in part because of partisan bickering and in part because neither side wanted the blame for killing the law and the accountability it brought. Faced with a state-by-state mutiny, the federal secretary of education began approving short-term waivers before establishing a process, now in place, for long-term ones. Thus, the 10 states were approved for waivers. The only problem with this is that the DOE has no legal authority for allowing states to opt out of federal law and in so doing is essentially wresting power away from the legislative branch and to the executive, a truly alarming precedent, but I’m not sure what else it is supposed to do.
Meanwhile, South Dakota is having a real donnybrook over education policy, a new state accountability model and the governor’s proposals on merit and shortage pay, as well as tenure. This particular fray, though, is laudable inasmuch as it is occurring at the right level, the state, while the row at the federal level is misplaced and is, in fact, being mishandled as only federal policy can be.
But the worrisome part is that the appropriate state debate is occurring one level down, where a full resolution of ideas and debates can be instantly made irrelevant by federal rules and bureaucratic noodleheadedness. In an era when the federal government is completely incapable of balancing a budget, the solution is obvious: rescind all federal education programming and spending and return those responsibilities where they have constitutionally always remained, the states. That this cannot even be imagined by the feds is proof positive that it isn’t always the higher level that enjoys the better perspective.