A massive bill to reinforce the federal role in K-12 education came back from the dead this week, and for some reason legislative leaders are rushing to pass it while obstructing the ability of lawmakers and the public to read it.
Friends on the Hill report that lawmakers’ aides have been trucking around cardboard boxes filled with paper stacked five or six inches high, upon which is written companion bills they’ve blended into one that will redefine (or reinforce) the current muck of federal education policy. The conference committee passed the bill in this state, two days after they received these boxes.
It’s a pretty safe bet not one “representative” read the contents and instead relied on PR summaries from interested parties to inform their nearly unanimous vote to send it to the full House and Senate (Sen. Rand Paul was the only committee no vote). The public and lawmakers at large will also get two days to see the bill before the scheduled and final House vote Dec. 2, as the bill will be released next Monday, Nov. 30.
This meme is floating around the interwebs among grassroots education watchdogs:
Education watchdog Erin Tuttle reports several shocking things she’s found from watching the conference committee proceedings and hounding lawmakers on her own time about this hush-hush bill.
While the conference committee hearing consisted mostly of members editorializing about how important it is to pass the bill, we did learn a little about the bill:
Neither the House version of the bill, the Student Success Act (SSA), nor the Senate version, the Every Child Achieves Act, were considered ideal to conservatives. In fact, the SSA barely passed the house amid complaints it didn’t do enough to restore power back to the states. The main incentive for conservatives to ignore less appealing aspects of the bill and pass it was the inclusion of a provision to allow the portability of Title 1 funds, which many believed important to the School Choice movement. The conference committee proceedings confirmed that Title 1 portability was no longer included in the new bill.
The conference committee proceedings also revealed that the new bill would increase spending by 12% over the next five years. Do conservatives think this increase is appropriate when our country is facing 18 trillion in debt? The federal government has increased spending on education by 300% since ESEA was passed with nothing to show for it; student test scores have remained flat.
High-stakes testing mandates are retained.
Tuttle reasonably concludes that Ryan should enforce a 60-day waiting period between releasing the bill and bringing it for a vote. That might seal the coffin on the Student Success Act, because deliberation before voting earlier this year tanked an earlier version due to conservative Republican opposition. That’s still in the air, Politico reported last week:
Many Republicans already were lukewarm or pointblank opposed to the bill that barely passed this summer – and that was more conservative. One of those lawmakers is Rep. Matt Salmon, a conservative education committee member who was skeptical of the bill this summer and is against it now. Salmon said he’s disappointed the framework includes a new pre-K program, consolidates fewer programs than the House’s bill and is weaker than the House’s language on students’ rights to opt out of standardized tests. ‘They’re going to get a lot of Democrats’ votes now, but they lost some of us,’ Salmon said. ‘Patty Murray was glowing about it, which sends me kind of a message.’
Sen. Mike Lee agreed with Tuttle’s perception, in floor remarks last week charging that “all of this has already been pre-arranged, pre-cooked, pre-determined… by a select few members of Congress, working behind closed doors, free from scrutiny. And we know that this vote was scheduled on extremely short notice, so that it would be difficult – if not impossible – for the rest of us to influence the substance of the conference report through motions to instruct” (h/t Christel Swasey ).
We Need to Find Out What’s In It Before Congress Passes It
The rush on this bill should be enough to hold back. But smuggled-out reports of what’s inside are another reason to pause. No matter how many times Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander says “local control,” lawmakers and voters deserve to see what evidence there is to uphold this judgment call so they can make their own rather than have to take Alexander’s word for it.
“Based on what I’ve seen, for the next [education] secretary, interpreting the new law will be like looking at a Rorschach with one eye closed and with both hands tied behind their back,” Charlie Barone, the policy director at Democrats for Education Reform, told Education Week. A GOP aide incoherently attempted to spin this to EdWeek, saying confusing regulations actually increase state and local control, because it “leaves a lot of this to states to figure out and the secretary’s ability to interfere with those state decisions is astonishingly limited.”
But, as Tuttle notes, that doesn’t make any sense: “Very complex language that is unclear. This means [USDOE] will have tremendous leeway to interpret it to the advantage of the federal government. Because it has discretion over how to administer the law, unclear language makes it easier for the US Department of Education to justify and make decisions to place requirements on the states through its rule-making authority.”
Mike Petrilli has a helpful graphic showing what his informants say the new bill keeps and drops.
If this chart is accurate, this bill is indeed an improvement over the 2001 No Child Left Behind that nobody likes and the Obama administration’s executive adventurism through extralegal waivers of that law. It’s not a massive improvement, but it’s not an utter catastrophe like most recent Republican “bipartisan agreements.” For example, mandating “challenging” state standards and tests, instead of “college- and career-ready” does actually remove federal force behind Common Core, since the latter is a regulatory dog-whistle for Common Core. And earlier bills gave the U.S. education secretary czar-like power to tell states how to run their education systems, so if it’s gone that’s obviously an improvement. But we have no idea if these changes have actually been made, because we can’t see the bill.
While it’s not looking like a catastrophe, this bill is a real missed opportunity for conservatives to substantively walk back the federal role in education, despite Alexander’s promises; it meets none of the four excellent benchmarks the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke outlined last December:
- enable states to completely opt out of the programs that fall under No Child Left Behind;
- eliminate programs and reduce spending;
- eliminate all the burdensome federal mandates; and,
- provide states the option of full Title 1 portability.
Conservatives need to stop accepting the Left’s premise about education policy, which is that central planners can know and do better than parents and teachers, the people who stand in front of children every day. When the discussion is about how much federal regulation there should be rather than whether it should exist at all, the Left has already won. They need to be negotiating against people who are skeptical of the U.S. Department of Education’s existence, not people who think spending more money on a set of programs reorganized into fewer boxes is a win.
As Tuttle points out, increasing spending should be an utter nonstarter in any bill Congress passes. We are in a fiscal crisis, and will be for the foreseeable future. Reports also say the bill adds yet another preschool program to the 45 the federal government already runs, and which have for decades shown no benefit to children or society.
We have no way of knowing if Petrilli’s assessment is accurate until the actual bill text comes out. And it’s really rather outrageous that it’s only coming out two days before a vote. That’s a procedure designed to reinforce the power of the very small group of people with information and control over the bill text, and to blunt the ability of the people out here in the hinterlands to communicate with our representatives about whether we think the good in this bill outweighs the bad and therefore merits a vote for or against. Now is the time for House Speaker Paul Ryan to show he meant his promise of transparency.