---- — Acting unconstitutionally, without benefit of Congress, President Barack Obama has vitiated President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Not a few progressives are cheering this and multiple other abuses of executive power, even though in this instance there is a negative, rather dramatic, consequence. Millions of children, especially blacks and Hispanics, are being left behind.
All the power abuses, of course, have had one major negative consequence — they eat away at the basic principles of this extraordinary republic of ours — but some may have had at least a temporary benefit of one kind or another. Not this one, which has wreaked severe punishment on young lives.
There’s a sense in which this story has its beginnings in 1983 with a report by a federal commission on education. Pointing to public school inadequacies and the consequences for society at large, it was called “A Nation at Risk” and led to endless discussion of reforms. Some meaningful steps were in fact taken, though the national situation continued to lag miles behind anything acceptable.
Then, in 2002, Bush joined forces with members of his own party and such liberal Democrats as Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to produce this law that aimed to hold public schools accountable through giving students basic skills tests and affording them better opportunities when the schools were not performing. There were funding issues. There were complaints about implementation. Some critics did not like so much federal intervention. Other critics said the emphasis on math and reading was crowding out sufficient attention to other subjects.
But it had become clear by the presidential campaign year of 2008 that something remarkable was happening — that students of the ages being tested were all improving and that minorities were narrowing the learning gap between them and whites. This law clearly had a lot to do with that, but attacks on the law were picking up, especially from politically active teachers unions and officials in some states and school districts. They had figured out, intelligently enough, that grading student improvements was a way of grading them, and they figured phooey on that.
To be fair to Obama, he has not always gone along with the unions, making some of them grumble over his support of charter schools, for instance. But he picked up some of their rhetoric in seeking reforms to the law in his first presidential campaign. As president, he began backing up on enforcement. Instead of working with Congress, as he seems very clumsy at doing, he took another path to revise the law. He began handing out waivers to states, saying they could ignore much of the law and instead slurp some more agreeable mush his administration had cooked up.
Paul E. Peterson isn’t happy. A professor of government at Harvard University, he wrote an Aug. 6 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal pointing out that the recent release of test results, in combination with some from the past, show that a shining moment has passed. When school accountability had strong backing from the White House, minority students made especially impressive gains in basic skills, but since Obama took power, test gains have slowed to a crawl. A narrowing black-white learning gap is beginning to widen again.
The nation is still at risk, from faltering education to be sure, but also from a president who thinks it’s OK to step beyond prescribed authority to rewrite an education law, delay an Obamacare provision, stop the deportation of some undocumented immigrants, aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and more, much more. He is not the first president to scoff at rule of law, but, especially on domestic issues, appears to be going further than others and is setting corrosive precedents even if he benefits politically and keeps getting his monarchical way.
Jay Ambrose is the former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers.