Once upon a time when their party believed in small government, balanced budgets, and federalism Republicans ran on promises to dismantle federal bureaucracies and unnecessary government agencies. The Department of Education was a the target of particular animus. Ronald Reagan called it “President Carter’s bureaucratic boondoggle.” Republicans routinely inveighed against creeping federal control of education and pleaded for the return of control to local school boards.
As sincere as they seemed at the time, in the 18 years Republicans have held the presidency since the Department of Education was created, they have been no more successful in dismantling it than in evicting the Muppets from their home at public broadcasting. Advocates of small government and local control of education really got their comeuppance with George W. Bush. Lulled into a fog by the rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism,” those who liked the old grumpy, small government variety of conservatism were mortified to see the federal government extend its reach into every classroom in America. Not even LBJ could have imagined No Child Left Behind.
The legislation sounded good on its face. Many children, especially in inner cities, were trapped in poor schools, standards seem to be invisible, and American children were falling further and further behind their foreign counterparts. What to be done? Since the federal government had such a magnificent track record in eliminating poverty and family fragmentation, politicians ranging from Teddy Kennedy to George W. Bush decided to give it one last assignment: improve K-12 education. Complaints from local school boards, teachers’ unions, and fiscal conservatives were ignored. As only the federal government can do bureaucrats were hired, federal funding conditioned and reams of regulations enacted, in particular requirements for standardized tests, to ensure children were actually being taught.
Fast forward just a few years and we now have the specter of the federal government threatening the local school board of one of the most successful school districts in the country with a loss of funds because the local school board has balked at the prospect of testing (and then inevitably failing) non-English speaking students in English as the federal bureaucrats have deemed necessary. No really. Apparently federal education officials didn’t like the reading exams that Fairfax and other local districts had devised for students learning English, because the tests according to the federal officials they were not equivalent to tests given to students fluent in English.
The Washington Post reported on Feb. 1, “In a sharply worded letter, Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon said he is ‘greatly distressed’ that some school districts, including Fairfax County [in Northern Virginia], might violate the No Child Left Behind Act. Simon urged Virginia to enforce the law. If it does not, he said, federal education officials could step in, possibly withholding funds.” Sensing the growing ire of parents who were now on to the bullying tactics of the Education Department, Secretary Margaret Spelling dashed off her own short piece for the Post claiming the local school district was “dragging its feet” in complying with federal testing dictates.
The victims in this tale of bureaucratic rapaciousness are not of course limited to less affluent, non-English speaking children. Ask any parent in this school district (largely populated by children of well to do, highly educated parents) which indisputably is successful whether they think the testing wrought by No Child Left Behind is a good thing and you will be greeted with much eye rolling and laughter. Real learning stops in April so curriculum can be diverted to daily drilling of students and test taking preparation. Days of classroom time each May are then taken up by the testing itself. With the help of the federal government students then lose weeks of classroom instruction.
The irony is delicious. We now have a federal bureaucrat put there at the behest of a Republican president dictating to a highly proficient local school board what questions should and should not be on the tests of Virginia school children. The Republicans’ former natural constituency — affluent and well-educated parents — is now disgusted with the busybodies in the Bush Education Department.
With Republicans bemoaning the absence of a “real” conservative standard bearer for president in 2008 it would seem a good place to start for an aspiring Republican candidate would be to champion repeal of No Child Left Behind. Such a candidate would be on solid philosophical footing and appeal to the army of disenchanted parents. What’s more, in this era of new found bipartisanship, they might even make some friends in the teachers’ unions.