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Michael Gerson: Giving up on America's children

Published: July 22, 2012

The Obama administration is increasingly known not for its legislative achievements but for its federal waivers to legislative achievements. It has exempted favored groups from immigration laws, welfare reform work requirements, even provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

The boldest use of the waiver power, however, has come on the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. More than half of the states have been granted exemptions from the law's requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. When a law's provisions are ignored in a majority of cases, it can properly be considered overturned.

In this instance, the overturning has not provoked much controversy. The political constituency for NCLB was always limited. Many conservatives reject any federal role in education. The educational establishment has been in a decade-long revolt against NCLB's onerous performance requirements and obsessive focus on test results. Right and left — Republican governors and teachers unions — have found rare ideological agreement on educational federalism.

The only problem: Education is a massive failure of federalism. By the second half of the 20th century, America's public schools were betraying many of the students in their charge, including the overwhelming majority of poor and minority students. Some students were left in dropout factories where teachers and administrators routinely blamed parents for their own overwhelmed incompetence. Other students were sabotaged by shoddy educational standards that left much of a generation unequal to global competition.

It is true that highly centralized governmental systems can be arrogant and mediocre. Public education demonstrates that a highly decentralized governmental system can also be arrogant and mediocre, particularly when parents are denied objective information about educational outcomes.

NCLB defined a limited but assertive federal role — schools were required to show improvement on standardized tests of reading and math for every subgroup of students or face penalties. But most opposition to NCLB was never about improving or refining the law. Some have an ideological opposition to testing as the enemy of educational creativity. They love the intangible joys of the profession, without the inconvenience of demonstrating that their work has any effect. Of course they do. The NCLB assessments cover rudimentary knowledge in math and reading for fourth- and eighth-graders. “There was a general feeling,” says Kelli Gauthier, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, “that there were these goals that no one was ever going to meet.” Has there ever been a profession of comparable national importance that demanded less of itself?

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