Obama Gives States a Voice In ‘No Child'
- New York Times, Sept. 24
WASHINGTON - Many Americans, having grown accustomed to Caesarism, probably see magnanimity in that front page headline. Others, however, read it as redundant evidence of how distorted American governance has become. A president "gives" states a "voice" in education policy concerning grades K through 12? How did this quintessential state and local responsibility become tethered to presidential discretion? Here is how federal power expands, even in the guise of decentralization:
Ohio Sen. Robert Taft (1889-1953) was "Mr. Republican," revered by conservatives chafing under the domination of the GOP by Eastern money that preferred moderates such as New York Gov. Tom Dewey, the GOP's 1944 and 1948 presidential nominee. In "The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party," Michael Bowen, historian at Pennsylvania's Westminster College, recounts how Taft leavened his small-government orthodoxy with deviations, including federal aid to primary and secondary education.
In the 79th Congress (1945-47), Taft sponsored legislation to provide such education more than $8 billion over 25 years. The sum was huge (the 1947 federal budget was $34.5 billion), and the 25-year horizon said federal intervention would not be temporary. Taft drafted his bill with help from the National Education Association, the teachers union which today is an appendage of the Democratic Party, except when the relationship is the other way around.
Bowen says Taft's bill "included provisions to guarantee that states would not cede control of their educational systems to federal authorities." Guarantee? Today we are wiser.
The bill passed the Senate but died in the House. Such federal aid to education came in 1965, the year of liberals living exuberantly, which produced Medicare and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The latter completed the long repudiation of the idea that some sectors of life are fenced off from federal supervision. In 1976, the NEA made its first endorsement of a presidential candidate; Jimmy Carter reciprocated by creating the Education Department.
George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind was the eighth reauthorization of the ESEA. It is due for a ninth, but the Obama administration considers the Republican-controlled House of Representatives icky and the separation of powers tiresome, so it is dispensing with legislation in favor of coercion - what has been called "coercive federalism." Education Secretary Arne Duncan is offering states waivers from NCLB's most annoying provisions if the states will accept administration conditions for education policy.
The slow-motion but steady submission of primary and secondary education to Washington proceeds in the name of emancipation.
George Will's column appears each Tuesday on the Missoulian's Opinion page.