A law meant to curb federal power is being used to expand it. Congress must strike it down.
In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, dubbed the “largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century” by the Wall Street Journal. Republicans and Democrats alike had grown frustrated with the Obama Department of Education’s operating like a national school board, dictating everything from teacher evaluation to school-turnaround strategies. Massive bipartisan majorities passed ESSA with an eye to returning Washington to a more modest and appropriate role.
But before the ink on the law was even dry, Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, mocked the will of Congress, boasting that it would be easy to get around the law’s restrictions: “We have every ability to implement, to regulate the law. . . . Our lawyers are much smarter than many of the folks who were working on this bill.” Obama’s clever lawyers proceeded to do all they could to soften or undo key sections of the law meant to curb Washington’s reach.
Last month, however, the House voted to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn the Obama regulations on ESSA school accountability. The Senate now has until May to pass the legislation (it requires only a simple majority) and send it to the president’s desk. This may sound like dull, arcane stuff, but it isn’t. The question before the Senate is whether to reassert the role of Congress vis-à-vis Department of Education bureaucrats and whether to ensure, as far as possible, that school accountability is primarily the province of state and local leaders.
Obama’s appointees sought to reshape ESSA more to their liking, trampling on the act’s explicit intent. Their new regulations ordered states to establish a single statewide definition of “ineffective teacher” (thus requiring states to adopt one-size-fits-all evaluation systems like those the Obama team had long championed). Contrary to the plain language of the statute, the new rules restricted how states could measure “school quality,” gauge “student success,” or steer improvement funds to schools. ESSA encouraged states to experiment with broader measures for school accountability; the regulations insisted that anything other than test scores would be an afterthought.
Now Obama partisans are trying to sell Senate Republicans on the idea that the regulations in question actually make the law....
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