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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Obama’s Educational Waivers: Toward the Political Consolidation of an Empire

A decade after the No Child Left Behind federal law was enacted, “President Obama freed 10 states from some of its crucial provisions.” The states’ freedom from a deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014 came with strings—accepting Obama’s own educational agenda, which focuses on accountability and teacher effectiveness and includes higher standards than the ones set in NCLB. Many state education officials have criticized the 2014 deadline as “an impossibly high bar” that “did not take into account the needs of some of the most disadvantaged children.” In announcing the waivers from the deadline, Obama said that the goals of NCLB should be met “in a way that doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test, or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures.” However, if the standards are to be even higher, might even fewer schools wind up passing—even if the deadline is extended?

In assuming that the setting education policy is one of the enumerated powers of the Federal Government, Obama was applying a “one size fits all” approach over what is essentially an empire of differing republics. Furthermore, having so much power over the states on education policy, the Obama administration was compromising the check and balance feature of federalism wherein the states are to act as a check on federal encroachment just as the federal government is to act as a check on states violating the rights of, or not providing for, their respective citizens. In other words, the significance of NCLB and the Obama administration’s own attempt to standardize education policy in the states through the spending clause of the U.S. Constitution (which alone is a stretch) goes well beyond education policy. The viability of the system of government in the United States can be seen to be severely compromised just in the president’s attitude toward the states—as if they were children and he was daddy.

Ken Wheare argues in his text, Federal Government, that state governments need be autonomous of federal authority in only one area for modern federalism to work. Wheare also extolls the mutual check and balance feature of federalism (as distinguished from a confederal alliance). The point I would like to make is that if the states of a federal system are “free” only in one domain, they do not have a sufficient basis of power on which to act  as a viable check against the encroachment of federal power over that of the states.

Where the federation is on the empire scale, such as the E.U., Russia, and the U.S., the consolidation that comes with federal encroachment means that inherent differences across the lands within the federation are stifled or ignored. Built-up pressure is not good for ongoing political stability. Policy itself tends to be of compromise that no one would independently want, rather than tailored to the particular political societies within the federation. As of at least the beginning of 2012, Europe has seemed more aware of the need of particular states to legislate for their respective polities  than has America.

As Justice Sandra Day O’Conner once said, “Congress is acting like a state legislature.” Such a significant category mistake cannot be good for the viable of a republic of republics—what Montesquieu referred to as wheels within a wheel. If all of the wheels within the wheel of the whole cannot operate at least partially independently, then any problem in the mechanism can quickly bring the entire mechanism to a quick stop. Like genetic diversity with respect to health, semi-sovereign diversity is necessary for political stability where the federation is on the empire-scale (i.e., inherently heterogeneous). We focus only on the substance of education policy at the expense of the impact of  the “how” on our system of public governance at our own peril. As long as it has interlarded itself into the classroom, perhaps the Federal Government should mandate that federalism be taught in Civics. It is more than a little disconcerting that the White House staff and their boss might need to attend such a class before being able to grasp the importance of the topic.

Winnie Hu, “10 States Are Given Waivers from Education Law,” The New York Times, February 10, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/education/10-states-given-waivers-from-no-child-left-behind-law.html