Today was inevitable, really. And, everyone knew it. Washington's plan was simply untenable. It could never work the way it was written.
(No, not referring to the debt crisis and downgrade and, well, the plunge today (don't get me started, just go here, please)).
Everyone knew NCLB's accountability provisions were a ticking bomb. They were never going to work. While some speculated that the bomb was intentional to blow-up public schools in favor of private and other options, that there was a hidden bomb in NCLB was unquestioned by even those with cursory knowledge of the law.
Lately states, such as mine, were getting tired of the inevitable countdown to 0 (as in the total number of passing schools on the accountability indexes). The grumbles were growing louder, yet nothing happened in Washington (they were too busy messing with our credit score). In reality, there was never so much as serious talk of a NCLB reauthorization timetable. Reauthorization may still be two or more years away and by then the bomb might actually explode.
So, today, the U.S. Department of Education took a big step. A unilaterial step. Perhaps an unauthorized step. Relevant quote:
The administration’s plan amounts to the most sweeping use of executive authority to rewrite federal education law since Washington expanded its involvement in education in the 1960s.
This is a complicated issue, so please don't think we are going to cover it all in this blog post. But, there are a few critical factors worth explaining:
1. This limits the role of the federal government. States, like Kentucky, will probably get to write their own accountability systems again. This brings the federal role more in line with the Tenth Amendment and the general concept of federalism in education.
2. This expands the role of the federal government. Yes, contradictory I know. Even though an individual state will get to write their own plans, the federal government has sign-off authority. As was shown with Race-to-the-Top, the Feds are not above using that kind of authority for coercion. Already in their public statements on this change, it is very clear that this will be a coercion mechanism to get the kind of reform Washington wants. Coercing states is more in line with the spending power of the Constitution, but much less in line with the Tenth Amendment.
3. The biggest expansion of the day, though, was of the power of the U.S. Department of Education. They are now front and center for education reform in this country. Many would argue (probably including me) that this is not their place not only under the Tenth Amendment, but also under generally understood principles of administrative law authorized by Article II (today was a possible infringement on Article I (ultimately, Article III might have to resolve this ... confusing enough for you?)).
What does all this mean? I don't know. The federal role in education is probably expanding, but it is doing it through the back door. As such, few people are really noticing and those that do have few options because they are already in the house. Federal expansion is a bit of a bell that cannot be unrung. That the federal role is expanding ... is likely inevitable. Today was just a different route toward doing so that positioned the Department of Education (and not Congress, nor the States) as the central accountability mechanism for education in the United States.
That they expanded today by actually helping states diffuse the bomb ... was creative and interesting. Because of that, a serious constitutional challenge might be avoided. In the next few weeks, we will likely see bills filed in Congress and new committee hearings and some pomp and circumstance against this - but, I would be surprised if this plan is not implemented and that this is not the framework for a reauthorization, whoever gets elected president next time.
So, today the NCLB Bomb was largely diffused. Good. It needed to be. But, in doing so, the federal government's role was expanded once again. A final, ironic chapter in the conservatively sponsored NCLB Act.