The cacophony of the November elections and post-election braying is now a memory. The pomp and circumstance of inaugurals and related speeches are also in the rearview mirror. Now it’s time to get to work and transform the promises and expectations of those campaigns and speeches into action. And this is exactly what Senator Lamar Alexander, R-TN, is doing.
Alexander, the new chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), intends to rein in a $20 billion federal program that affects 53 million public school students and teachers: the No Child Left Behind Act. He began work on the issue in December and recently released a “discussion draft” of a proposed bill.
NCLB, as the country is so painfully aware, was passed in a patriotism charged vote with bipartisan support after the catastrophe of 9/11. Since its implementation in 2002, however, the NCLB has become something of a catastrophe all its own.
The Act doesn’t poll very well. A 2012 Gallup poll showed that only 16% of the adults polled thought NCLB improved education; 67% felt that it had made no difference or made things worse. The latter number skyrocketed to 77% among those adults who said they were “familiar with the NCLB Act”. The data also demonstrated a deterioration of confidence in the Act from 2009 to the 2012 poll. These numbers also demonstrate a broad based, bipartisan dissatisfaction with NCLB.
Parents blame it for a “teaching to the test” agenda among educators where the teaching syllabus is often restricted to the items to be tested at the expense of a more complete curricula. Even the National Education Association has advocated for a lessening of the testing requirements. Other complaints stem from the Act’s flawed implementation of its provisions seeking to encourage weak or failing schools to improve themselves. And then there’s the recognition that it’s another example of federal overreach, as evidenced when teachers, parents, conservatives and liberals “pile on” a federal law because it “gets in the way” of the classroom.
Perhaps more telling about NCLB’s ineffectiveness was the Obama administration’s routine issuing of waivers in 2012 to states protecting them against the more punitive provisions of the Act. The waivers were granted if those states would produce their own plans for enhancing teacher competence and academic standards as well as implementing ways to track their progress, that is, develop a process for accountability. In other words, “Ya’ll do what you’ve always done before we got in the way.”
Imagine, letting the states handle their own problems in education and schooling. Novel concept.
Alexander’s approach to NCLB reform is grounded in that concept. Since Obama opened the door with the waivers, Alexander builds on that practice by returning more power and authority to the states. Moreover, he is opposed to a “National School Board” and Alexander’s bill puts safeguards in place to restrict the Department of Education from unduly influencing state and local education policy.
The debate, according to Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “is not about what education policy should be in place at the state and local level. It’s about the appropriate and effective role of the federal government in getting from here to there.”
As much as West is right, there is still a problem: NCLB is a federal program. And no matter how small that role and limited that effectiveness may be, there will still be federal dollars.
Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights summed up the relationship between federal money and federal involvement rather smartly, “I am hard-pressed to understand how you give states federal money with no strings attached.”
Bingo. This has always been the thinking in Washington and it will never change. The only way to cut the strings is cut the funding.
Although they will be chided, goaded, “class-warfared” and denigrated by the present White House, Congress has an opportunity to open a new political window and have a discussion about writing the federal government out of the education business. The time has never been better to “highlight and cut” provisions of NCLB that empower Washington. There is a broad consensus that the public’s sentiment is running strongly against federal involvement in local education.
Sen. Alexander is on the right track. His actions could lead to even broader considerations regarding the NCLB including the justification for its very existence. And if that discussion could get traction, there is room for a universal discussion about the relevancy, rationale and justification for the entire United States Department of Education in twenty-first century America.
The Congress should send Obama legislation that starts the process of getting Washington, DC, out of Mayberry’s classrooms and school board meetings. He will veto it and the GOP will have an issue in 2016 guaranteed to resonate with all voters.
Carpe diem, Sen. Alexander. Go for it.
© 2015 Gary M. Wisenbaker. All rights reserved.
Gary M. Wisenbaker is the sole copyright holder of this blog site. By posting content to this blog, you agree to transfer copyright to the blog owner.
Gary Wisenbaker, B.A., J.D. is a native of South Georgia where he practiced law in Valdosta and Savannah for 31 years. He has served as state Chairman of the Georgia Young Republicans and Chairman of the Chatham County (Savannah) Republican Party. Gary is a past GOP nominee for State Senate, past delegate to the Republican National Convention and has consulted on numerous local Republican campaigns as well as chaired or co-chaired campaigns for President and US Senate on the county and district level. He is the principal and founder of Blackstone, LLC, a corporate communications and public relations concern as well as Wiregrass Mediation Services, LLC, a general civil litigation mediation firm.
Gary recently published his first fictional work, “How Great is His Mercy: The Plea”, on Amazon.com. His opinions are regularly published on ValdostaToday.com and Zpolitics.com.