Speaker Ryan, No Head Fakes on ‘No Child Left Behind’ Please!

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-OH) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-OH) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

What does it take to make it clear that the American people are fed up? The Republican grassroots are in open revolt against the “establishment” presidential candidates. Speaker John Boehner lost his job because of his dismissiveness toward the more conservative members of his caucus. In response, new Speaker Paul Ryan promised a return to “regular order” and to greater consultation with all members of his caucus.

But the last two days’ events with respect to reauthorizing the despised No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statute demonstrate that nothing has changed. The insiders still control, the American people are shut out, and the politically connected get their way amid much backslapping bonhomie.

This summer, both the House and the Senate passed bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, the current iteration of which is NCLB). Although both bills were marketed as reining in the U.S. Department of Education and reinstating state control over standards and assessments, a reading of the hundreds of pages of legislation showed they did no such thing. Moreover (among other failings), they extended federal tentacles over toddlers, incentivizing states to expand useless if not harmful government preschool programs, and they provided grants to shove states into embracing “brave new world” technology to psychologically profile students.

All of these shortcomings led a coalition of over 200 grassroots organizations to oppose any reauthorization based on these bills and to urge Congress to avoid the trap of sending our leftist President anything he would find acceptable.

For the next few months, concerned Americans monitored developments in Washington to see when the conference committee would be appointed to reconcile the differences and produce a compromise bill. With so much turmoil on so many issues, citizens were told that almost certainly, nothing would happen this year. As late as last week, congressional staffers (and even one congressman) assured constituents that ESEA reauthorization would be delayed because the conference committee members hadn’t even been appointed yet.

And then early this week – surprise! – word leaked out that the compromise bill had already been drafted behind closed doors. With the bill ready to go, the conference committee was hastily appointed, not to negotiate it, but to rubber-stamp it.

So, was the bill made available to the public? Of course not. Word has it that a hard copy was given to the committee the night before the conference committee meeting – a stack of pages five or six inches tall, which probably means 1000-plus pages long, with no page numbers. No copy was put online so the peasants could see it. After a short hearing devoted primarily to celebrating themselves for their excellent work, the committee cheerily passed the bill. The only “no” vote came from Sen. Rand Paul.

The likelihood that any committee member actually read or analyzed this bill is exactly zero. However, a staffer for Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) assured one constituent that he in fact did read and analyze every page, which makes him both the fastest reader and the smartest man on Capitol Hill. No doubt Georgians will remember that when he runs for re-election next year.

In light of this charade, it’s troubling to read what Speaker Ryan said on Thursday about his celebrated reinstatement of “regular order”:

This week, we also made significant progress in our efforts to return to regular order. Two formal committee conferences have met. You know, I’m amazed at this. I looked at the record, and been . . . on conference committees – but many of our members have never even experienced a conference committee because we’ve not had regular order around here for a long time. So this week we have two conference committees meeting – the highway conference and education conference.

So, Speaker Ryan is happy that something called a “conference committee” met for a few hours, talked about a document that was deliberately withheld from the American public, and engaged in enough kabuki theater to pacify the rubes in the provinces. Apparently to the Speaker, “regular order” means “business as usual.”

Now we’re told the bill will not be available for the public to view until November 30 (if this bill is such a triumph for state and local autonomy, why not release it to the people?), and the House will vote on it on December 2, right after the Thanksgiving recess. Nothing like a long holiday to make sure no congressman will actually read the mammoth fed-ed scheme that will be imposed on American children for another four years. This is shameful. If for no other reason, the corrupt process that produced this education version of Obamacare must be defeated.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.