When President Obama departs office on January 20, he will leave behind a remarkable legacy in K–12 education, but not the one he seemed to want. Instead of dictating terms to schools, the president and his administration received a historic rebuke of federal power.
It is possible that since the start of major federal involvement in the mid 1960s, no one person or law — not even George W. Bush or the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) — has centralized education power as much as Obama has. Yet this centralization eventually led to bipartisan rejection of ever-pushier feds. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in late 2015, reversed the seemingly inexorable sweep of federal education history, returning power to the states and people.
That shift was welcome. Taking power away from parents and children has made education an increasingly lifeless, test-obsessed endeavor. And although tests are hardly the sum of education, reading scores for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) have basically not budged since the early 1970s. Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted spending per pupil has roughly doubled.
Alas, the Obama administration seemed determined to continue the trend. The handwriting of president-centric education policy was on the wall early in Obama’s first term. In the administration’s first year, it encouraged every school in the country to have students watch the president lead what was essentially a televised back-to-school pep rally. The Department of Education even produced lesson guides suggesting that students do such things as “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”
The Constitution gives the federal government no education authority. But at least the rally — though symbolically awful for federalism — was mainly hype. It was the substantive things the administration did that eventually led to Obama’s unfortunate legacy in education.
The key to unprecedented concentration of power was the so-called stimulus program in 2009. It plowed roughly $100 billion into education, mainly to fill state and district budgets. The program also specified reforms that states were supposed to make to get funding, including “making progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments,” and making “improvements in teacher effectiveness.”
Much of the money was to be quickly doled out no matter what, but the funds included $4.35 billion that became known as Race to the Top, which allowed the administration to tell states, You want some of this, do as we say. To get maximum “Race” points, states had to commit to standards common to a majority of states and to shared assessments aligned with those standards. The only standard that fit was Common Core, which the administration championed despite little research even suggesting that national standards improve achievement.
This did not hit the public radar for a while; attention was on the recession, and most states applied for Race to the Top Grants with little debate. But when school districts were told by states around 2011 that they would have to change their curricula to fit the Core — states had to overhaul their overall standards and testing plans first — opposition exploded, first from tea-party activists, then from progressives who chaffed under Washington-driven, test-fixated education.
At about the same time, Obama dropped the other shoe. Under NCLB, all students were supposed to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014. Probably every state was going to miss the mark. Perhaps sensing a crisis it did not want to waste, the administration offered waivers that allowed states to opt out of many NCLB requirements, including the proficiency deadline, but only if the state complied with administration conditions.
It was probably illegal: The NCLB law allowed the education secretary to grant waivers, but not with conditions that essentially rewrote the law. Regardless, among other things, teacher evaluations had to be based on students’ standardized test scores. And with that, the teachers’ unions joined the battle against federal power, power they’d long toiled to increase.
Remarkably, Obama had brought the Left and the Right together against Washington. The result was the ESSA, which ends much of NCLB’s hated prescriptions — good-bye, “adequate yearly progress” and associated punishments — and forbids the secretary of education from specifying state standards or tests.
ESSA is not an impenetrable shield: States must still get policies approved by the secretary, administer uniform state tests, and intervene in many schools. But given the ever-increasing power of the federal government over education — from just doling out money in the mid 1960s to coercing specific standards, tests, and teacher-evaluation rules — ESSA is a significant success. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal dubbed it “the largest devolution of federal control to states in a quarter of a century,” and it should be encouraging to anyone who thinks that education is best handled as closely as possible to the children whom the schools are supposed to serve.
What’s Obama’s education legacy? Overreach of such magnitude that it pushed Left and Right together to do the once-unthinkable: take power from Washington.
— Neal McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.