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NCLB Outrages

Does the Federal Department of Education Know the Constitution?

Ohanian Comment: Here's an example of the 'strange bedfellows' spawned by NCLB. Remember: Weyrich is credited with founding the immensely influential conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation, in 1973 with funding from Joseph Coors of the Coors beer empire and Richard Mellon-Scaife, heir of the Carnegie-Mellon fortune. But then Heritage has also received monies from Pew Charitable Trust which also funded many GOALS 2000 initiatives. Heritage has also received grants from Amoco, General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank [David Rockefeller] and right-wing foundations like Olin and Bradley.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) chairs the 100-member Republican Study Committee in the House. RSC members are conservative. This year the RSC wants to take a strong stand against further expansion of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing program for schools. When the House considered NCLB in 2001 a handful of conservatives was brave enough to buck the status quo by opposing the NCLB legislation but most Republicans backed it. Pence thinks things will be different this year. More conservatives will be emboldened to challenge No Child Left Behind. He makes it a point to say that he never has been criticized by a parent or school teacher for his vote against NCLB four years ago.

Pence explained his opposition to NCLB in a recent USA TODAY commentary because it represented “a huge increase in the Federal Government’s role in our local schools.” Pence argued: “Sadly, this plan doesn’t even make a pretense of increasing competition through school choice but reverts entirely to the educational micromanagement of the Clinton administration, with federal resources targeted to specific classroom activities.”

States already dislike the punitive penalties that NCLB can impose if they fail to boost standardized scores on an annual basis in racial and demographic categories. Regrettably, the Federal educrats are at it again as No Child Left Behind II, with national testing for high school students, comes to Congress. The last thing our local schools need is more testing ordered by Washington.

Education is a local responsibility. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are very clear that the Federal Government has limited functions – national defense, overseeing interstate commerce and infrastructure – but they do not include responsibility for prescription drugs or micromanaging K-12 education. The Tenth Amendment is clear, although somewhat whittled down by the courts, that the powers not granted to the Federal Government are for the governments of the states and localities to exercise. My colleague, Marion Edwyn Harrison, Esq., recently reminded us in his commentary “A Buck-Passing Quest for Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic” (3/02/05 Notable News Now)that “Various Constitutional scholars, federalists and others would abolish the federal role in primary and secondary education.”

Utah’s simmering revolt against the regulatory strait-jacket imposed upon its schools demonstrates the need for the states to fight back against the U.S. Department of Education’s regulatory regime.

The Utah House voted unanimously in mid-February for H.B. 135, a bill sponsored by Rep. Margaret Dayton (R) to have state education officials accord higher priority to local educational goals. “Our goal is to maintain state sovereignty,” explained State Rep. Dayton.

H.B. 135 directed Utah educators to place priority on the State’s own educational goals, not Washington mandates, particularly in terms of spending money and in determining goals for students. State officials would be able to lobby for changes to NCLB that they perceive to be against the State’s best interest.

Utah’s Eagle Forum chapter supported Rep. Dayton’s bill. Gayle Ruzicka, President of Utah Eagle Forum, emphasized in a letter to Rep. Dayton that the 2004 Republican Platform states: “We recognize that under the American Constitutional system, education is a state, local and family responsibility, not a federal obligation.” However, the support also included the state chapter of the National Education Association, no doubt for reasons other than Federalism.

The State Schools Superintendent, Patti Harrington, Ed.D., supported the Dayton Bill also. She asserted that NCLB supplies just 7% of the dollars spent on Utah schools. “But they want to control 100 percent of what goes on in classrooms.”

Rep. Dayton explained in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article that compliance with No Child Left Behind actually puts the State at odds with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Here’s why. All students under NCLB – even those with disabilities – must meet grade level standards in math and reading. IDEA requires that students meet their own individual goals, not the federally mandated goal of grade level proficiency.

Rep. Dayton sponsored a tougher bill last year that would have required Utah to abstain from participation in NCLB altogether. The U.S. Department of Education warned that if her bill became law Utah would lose $106 million in federal funding so, predictably, the bill met with defeat. It had cleared the Utah House but the threat of lost funds derailed it.

Her bill this year seized upon language within the NCLB law that appears to allow the U.S. Secretary of Education to grant waivers to states that would allow them to fulfill their own goals. According to a February 16, 2005 article by Kavan Peterson in Stateline.org, on “Rebellion Against Federal Ed Law Reignites in Utah,” the Dayton Bill
would permit local officials to set their own goals in terms of student accountability unless the Federal Government either provides full funding for NCLB or issues waivers.

The immediate past Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, administered a “no exceptions” policy in regard to waivers. The Education Department is now trying to be more accommodating to Utah, having sent officials there last week to negotiate some flexible changes in the law. Last year, when Secretary Paige was still in office, Utah met with a cold shoulder when it sought increased flexibility from the Department of Education. Superintendent Harrington expressed hope that the Federal Government might be more flexible, particularly since the new Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, appears more responsive to state concerns, having recently granted 4,000 North Dakota teachers the right to teach despite their concerns they would be found unqualified under NCLB.

NCLB’s requirement for “highly qualified” teachers imposes a real burden on rural school districts. It is common for a teacher to teach three or four subjects but the NCLB requirements raise the bar to unachievable levels for rural areas. Harrington explained, “The feds are beginning to understand that teachers are hard to find in states with large rural populations. Most of them have to teach in three or four subjects, and it’s absurd to force them to get master’s degrees in each area.”

When the Utah Senate still had Rep. Dayton’s bill before it the U.S. Department of Education granted Utah’s teachers an exemption. It makes sense to upgrade the qualifications of teachers, but was the Department of Education’s route the proper path?

The final vote on H.B. 135 in the State Senate did not occur in the regular session which ended on Wednesday. Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R) decided to engage in more negotiations with the Federal Government. If the negotiations fail, the bill still could be considered in a special session starting on April 20. “If we don’t get some sort of accommodation we anticipate the bill going forward and the governor signing it,” explained Tim Bridgewater, the aide in charge of education in Gov. Huntsman’s office.

Lawmakers in Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Vermont also have introduced legislation that challenges NCLB. The National Conference of State Legislatures just issued a report declaring that “Under N.C.L.B., the Federal Government’s role has become excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education.” The NCSL is not a conservative association. However, its report actually stated the N.C.L.B.’s “assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state innovations and undermining many that had occurred during the past three decades.” The report stated the task force of state legislators and staffers “does not believe that N.C.L.B. is constitutional.”

Let’s hope more state legislatures will challenge the top-down rulemaking that places undue burdens on local schools. There is plenty for conservatives to be concerned about with the poor state of our nation’s schools. Dictates emanating from office buildings in Washington are no solution to failing schools.

What is really needed is for local citizens and conservative groups to aggressively push to improve local schools, promote greater choices in education, and get Washington out of the education business. It’s too costly and the rules promulgated in the bureaucratic cubicles in the U.S. Department of Education building in Washington often fail to make sense when put to the test in classrooms throughout the country. Education is a business Washington has no business being in anyway. If you don’t believe me, then read the Constitution.

Maybe it’s time to quiz the Department of Education bureaucrats about what is the proper role of the Federal Government when it comes to education. If they answer correctly and wisely, their budget requests should be a lot less next year and NCLB would disappear. Even if the education establishment at the Department of Education knows the Constitution, expect a sudden case of purposeful amnesia to strike when they are tested. Why? Unlike TV game shows, giving the wrong answer in regard to Constitutional authority on domestic programs in this town can bring significant rewards.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

— Paul M. Weyrich
The Conservative Voice


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