By Harold Pease, Ph. D
No Child left Behind (NCLB), the signature legislation of the George W. Bush Administration is now up for re-authorization. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions overseeing this review, said recently that he wanted to “put the responsibility back with states and local school districts” to oversee public schools with as few mandates as possible from Washington. His draft bill proposal offers states the right to test annually, as the present law requires, or instead every three years. NCLB failed revision attempts in 2007 but is ripe for change now as it is so unpopular.
The federal government forced a roll in public education with The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, as a part of the Great Society. It enticed state and school districts to go after the “free” money thereafter offered by the Federal Government. The original purpose of the 1965 law was to distribute federal aid to schools and districts that enrolled large numbers of poor children. To get the “free” money, however, schools had to conform to federal government standards and allow federal review of their programs. Very quickly districts and schools accepting the “free” money became very dependent upon it and thus became strong advocates for it.
In 2002 ESEA was modified and renamed by President George W. Bush: No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Though renamed it has not improved students’ preparation for higher learning. Schools were required to test every child in grades three through eight annually and had to prove their scores were going up. When that did not happen they were closed, privatized, or taken over by the state. The law set a goal that every child would be “proficient” by 2014. This did not happen either. Some say the law left all children at least two years, if not three, behind. It certainly has not worked as intended as indicated by the Barack Obama Administration’s having to extend flexibility from it to 42 states and the District of Columbia. In other words, only eight states met the mark and the Great Society measure to improve educational standards for all has failed.
What is missing in Senator Alexander’s argument is that his solution still leaves the federal government as having a legitimate roll in education and in a place of dominance over the states, when the Constitution gave it none. The word education is conspicuously absent from the document—not found in the list of federal powers Article I, Section 8 and never added by way of amendment to the Constitution since. For the federal government to increase its sovereignty over the states by offering money would have been unconscionable in yesteryear. The thought of having a centralized government having any say in what was fact or fiction in the lives of their children would have been inconceivable. Standard education could become standard thought. What is the difference between propaganda and education?
Who cares most whether Johnny can read, the federal government 2,000 miles away, or his mother? Who cares more whether Johnny’s friend can read, some bureaucrat in Washington D.C., or his community? School board members very likely have their own kids in the same schools and kids have their parents or grandparents overseeing their learning. Moreover, the community has access to board members at school games, on the street, or at the super market to complain to or praise. It does not get any better than this.
Constitutionally everything with respect to education, even it’s funding, was to come from the state and local governments. The “free” money offered by the federal government to steal state sovereignty duped politicians in the sixties, and today as well, into looking away from the Constitution as they, held out their hands to receive; and the benefiting group, the educational establishment, also with tin cups in hand, cheered them on. The argument that the federal government could manage learning better than state and local government is/has, and always will be, faulty.
After Lyndon B. Johnson effectively put the camels’ head (government power and authority), into the tent (education) there was no stopping its body following. President Jimmy Carter then established the Department of Education and progressively school boards have become largely “rubber stamps” as they are told by benefiting administrators that this and that regulation is federally mandated. Hopefully Congress will end authorization of their No Child Left Behind law returning education to the states and local government where it constitutionally belongs or at the very least propose an amendment to the Constitution authorizing federal take-over of education. It certainly could do so on the basis of the Constitution or on the damage it has done to our children and our schools.
Dr. Harold Pease is a syndicated columnist and an expert on the United States Constitution.