Dear Speaker Ryan: It’s Time to End ‘No Child Left Behind’

President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 (public domain image)
President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002

This post was co-authored by Jane Robbins, an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project.

To no one’s surprise, political elites have apparently crafted a bill (behind closed doors in the dead of night) to reauthorize the despised No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statute. Business as usual – working, everyday Americans are quietly ignored while the powerful education establishment and its elitist allies get their way.

But new House Speaker Paul Ryan could alter this trajectory. He has expressed unwillingness to send President Obama legislation that he can use for mischief. Education legislation should fall squarely into that category.

In response to a reporter’s question on ABC’s “This Week” about immigration legislation, Ryan confirmed that he would not send an immigration bill to the House floor while President Obama is in office:

Yes, I think he’s proven untrustworthy on this issue. He tried to go around Congress with an executive order to rewrite laws unilaterally. Presidents don’t write laws. Congress writes laws. So, yes, I do not believe we should — and we won’t — bring immigration legislation with a president we cannot trust on this issue.

We could call this the “Ryan Doctrine”: In areas where the President has a history of lawlessness, don’t rush him “reform” legislation that won’t fix the problem and will make it harder for the next Administration to make the case that another round of reform is needed.

Under the Ryan Doctrine, the proposed NCLB reauthorization should be toast. Although details of the secret compromise bill are still secret, the Senate and House bills on which it’s based are objectionable on myriad levels. Most relevant to the Ryan Doctrine is that the bills would cement either the Common Core national standards or something very much like them in all the states, and would continue the federal testing mandates with “brave new world,” psychologically profiling assessments.

Although Republican proponents of the bills cite language prohibiting the Secretary of Education from imposing standards or assessments, the rest of the legislation contains so many mandates that the states will fall in line – regardless of what the Secretary “imposes.” Moreover, the prohibitions contain no enforcement mechanism for the states to challenge illegal federal action.  Where Congress is serious about prohibitions and protecting a class of parties, it lays down a full enforcement program: for example, it provides mechanisms for administrative review and consequent penalties, it specifies who can bring legal suit and what the remedies are, and it might even provide for expedited reviews of one sort or the other.  The House and Senate NCLB bills have none of that.  The proposed restrictions largely replicate the existing, toothless restrictions in existing laws.  The fox will once again be guarding the henhouse.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican sponsor of the Senate’s reauthorization bill, has made clear his intention to send the President a bill he will find acceptable.  Sen. Alexander is probably correct that the President will like this legislation – because it will place no real restrictions on federal action and ensure continuation of the Progressive policies so beloved by the education establishment.  As evidenced by plummeting test scores, disintegrating testing consortia, and open parental and teacher revolt against excessive testing and intrusive data-collection, the Common Core scheme is falling apart. Why would Congress even consider passing a bill that locks this in place?

But even if the prohibitory language were meaningful, the idea that we can trust the Obama administration to abide by it is, simply, laughable.

In education, as in immigration, the Obama administration has been absolutely lawless.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan presided over a Common Core scheme that violated three existing federal statutes: the General Education Provision Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the latest iteration of which is NCLB).  All of those statutes prohibit (but, again, without any enforcement mechanism) the federal government from supervising, directing, or controlling curricula, but that is exactly what the feds have done by imposing national standards that drive curricula.

The U.S. Department of Education also distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to consortia to develop national assessments aligned to Common Core — despite statutory prohibitions against the feds’ involvement in national testing, and even though the tests essentially, and illegally, dictate curricula.

So even if the reauthorization bill seriously attempts to rein in the Administration, we can count on the President and his henchmen to evade or ignore it.  The idea that we can trust this covey of radical true believers to suddenly start obeying the law is foolish indeed.  Why consider yourself bound by reactionary statutes when there’s a nation to transform?  And what better way to transform it than by perverting the education of its children?

Sen. Alexander and his colleagues seem determined to show that they can “govern” – that they can work with the President and strike a deal that leaves everyone happy.  But sending this leftist President an education bill that shuts down reform for perhaps another dozen years or so (President Bush signed NCLB into law in January 2002) is nothing short of madness.

This brings up part 2 of the Ryan Doctrine:

As speaker, I’ve promised a new way of doing business. Don’t pass thousand-page bills in the middle of the night. Do it all out in the open. Take it step by step. And get serious about enforcing our laws.

But that’s exactly what has happened, and what’s still happening, with NCLB reauthorization.  At each step of the way, leadership has crammed it through without opportunity for discussion.  It has scheduled votes without even giving its members a chance to read the bill and talk it through with constituents.  The House and Senate bills weighed in around 800 pages, but how many members of Congress had the chance to review it?  How many have actually read it?  On this wide-ranging matter that affects children, parents, and grandparents, how many members held town hall meetings?  Now, under Speaker Ryan, the leadership apparently leaked that they are ready to ram the bill through.  As reported by Education Week:

So what’s the timing? Expect the conference to kick off next Tuesday night and conclude by Thursday. And expect the bill to be on the floor of both chambers after Thanksgiving recess. That will give enough time for rank-and-file lawmakers to read it and make sure they understand what’s in it before they have to vote on it.

Is that really enough time for “rank-and-file” members to read it and make sure they understand it before voting on it?  Oh, and what about time to discuss it with their constituents?

It seems that nothing has changed in Washington.  Education is a throw away issue for Republican elitists, something for them to throw out to show that they can “get along”– something especially useful after having doubled down on another issue like immigration.  As Kirsten Lombard, a Wisconsin Republican activist and editor of the book Common Ground on Common Core, remarked:

Everyday-citizens now have had a huge role in exposing the damage NCLB has long inflicted on parental rights, local control of education, and student learning. Speaker Ryan would do well to heed this quickly shifting paradigm. He should understand that it’s no longer enough simply to say the right things. An actual record of helpful action is required. In fact, saying one thing and doing another on education appears to have had much to do with submarining the presidential aspirations of Scott Walker.

Emmett McGroarty is the executive director of APP Education.