by Emmett McGroarty
Most of the Republican presidential candidates at least pay lip service to the idea of local control over education. Some even call for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education (USED). But what do these positions really mean? Does “local control” extend to standards and testing (the federal government’s big stick), or should the federal government ride herd over those aspects of education? Would abolishing USED accomplish anything other than rolling its responsibilities over to a different agency (such as the Department of Labor, given the workforce-development mania in the national education establishment)?
At last weekend’s Practical Federalism forum in New Hampshire, Carly Fiorina responded to a question with refreshing specificity. Here was the question: “Right now the federal government mandates in what subjects and in what grades children should be subjected to standardized tests. Do you oppose the federal government having this power?” This was Fiorina’s answer: “Yes.” So for the first time, a candidate has come out against a specific power that USED has exercised under No Child Left Behind — a power that Congress is seeking to reauthorize through the two bills that are now in conference after having passed the Senate and the House. And Fiorina went on to connect the exorbitant growth of USED over the years with the overall decline in the quality of public education.
The federal testing mandate that Fiorina has now specifically condemned is one of the worst features of No Child Left Behind, because the testing tail wags the education dog. If the federal government controls the testing, it controls education, period. The failure of so-called “conservative” senators and House members to see this — and their vote to continue the mandate for years in the name of “accountability” — shows how out of touch they are with millions of parents and teachers throughout the country. It’s time the schools returned to being accountable to parents and their wishes, not to a distant federal bureaucracy.
Fiorina also offered the following description of the Common Core scheme:
I don’t know how it started, but what it’s turned into without a doubt, written in part by testing companies and textbook companies – that’s called crony capitalism, ladies and gentlemen, they are trying to protect their interests in all of this – what Common Core has turned into is a bureaucratic standardized program telling teachers how to teach and students how to learn, and it will not help.
At its root, though, Common Core was, and is, a bad idea, and that’s an important point to make. Common Core rests on taking natural decision-making away from local communities and states and transferring it to the federal government and special interests. That is never a good idea. But that’s the federal government’s modus operandi, and the reason why confidence in the national government is at a historic low. Moreover, when people are cut off from decision-making on something that is inherently a local matter, we consistently end up with a poor policy product. For example, Common Core locks children into an inferior education that fails to prepare children for higher education.
Fiorina’s statement against federally dictated testing is welcome, and she deserves credit for it. It is especially welcome because the Republican-led Congress is rushing to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the testing mandates in it. Their goal is to get the President a bill that he will sign before he leaves office. It is the major education bill in the United States, a bill signed by President George W. Bush and sponsored by Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), George Miller (D-CA), and Ted Kennedy (D-MA). It is an unmitigated disaster that ruined the education of countless children. And now the Republican-led Congress wants America to think that the idea of NCLB was good; it just morphed into something unintended.
Neither Congress nor the federal government enjoy the confidence of the American people. The Republican party, like its forebear the Whig party, is dying due to its inability to stand on principle. In the primaries, people are turning to outsiders in a desperate search for someone who will usher in systemic change. The candidates don’t seem to realize this. They dance around the edges. But they do not (yet?) have a set of cogent policy reforms –executive orders and proposed statutes — showing how they will transfer power back to the states and the people.
Emmett McGroarty is the executive director of APIA Education.