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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Sec. Duncan Seems to Regard Constitution as so Much Tissue on Bottom of His Shoe

By Rick Hess — June 13, 2011 3 min read
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Our earnest Secretary of Education, who famously (and bizarrely) promised Congress a billion-dollar edu-bonus if it reauthorized NCLB by the administration’s deadline and to the President’s satisfaction, was back at it on Friday. Exhibiting the administration’s patented disinterest in the niceties of the U.S. Constitution, he announced that he’s getting ready to waive NCLB requirements for states if they agree, as the New York Times put it, “to embrace President Obama’s education priorities, a formula the administration used last year in its signature education initiative, the Race to the Top grant competition.”

Ed Week‘s Michele McNeil observed, “Any new flexibility would come with strings attached, as states would be asked ‘for courage and for reform.’” Duncan highlighted labor-management collaboration, laws that establish new teaching standards, and “the next generation of assessments” as the kinds of things he’d insist upon. McNeil reported, “Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Mr. Duncan, said that unlike the Race to the Top, which allowed states to devise their own education improvement plans, the department would present states with a basket of strategies they would have to adopt in exchange for relief.”

So, let me get this straight. After barely convincing Congress to keep Race to the Top on life support, Duncan is intent on unilaterally pushing his same pet priorities through the back door? He’s planning to offer regulatory relief only if states adopt reforms that are utterly absent in the relevant legislation? Facing backlash on the right and left over concerns that the administration coerced states to embrace test-driven teacher evaluation and the Common Core through Race to the Top, Duncan’s strategy is to double down? Well, no matter, I’m sure the Republican majority in the House will cheer Duncan’s enthusiastic willingness to lead. Or not...

The National Journal‘s Fawn Johnson wrote, “President Obama has called for lawmakers to rewrite No Child Left Behind by the start of the new school year. Now he’s giving them the second warning before sending them to the principal’s office: Do your job or we’ll do it for you.” Now, I know the President is a Nobel Prize winner and all but, back when I was earning my Ph.D. in political science, I don’t remember anything that empowered the President to issue Congress legislative deadlines or usurp Congressional prerogatives if the administration’s timetable isn’t met. Sandy Kress, former Bush administration education adviser, observed, “I don’t get all the drama. It almost has the feel of a threat to Congress.”

At a time when Obama partisans are seeking to dismiss Tea Party critiques of administration moves on health care, auto bailouts, financial regulation, and the stimulus as conspiracy-minded lunacy, do they really not see that this is precisely the mindset that raises such hackles among critics? I’m curious whether any of the lawyers at ED tried to explain to Duncan that he’s not permitted to remake federal law on the fly, just because he and the President think it’s a good idea, or whether they’re cheerfully along for the ride.

After having turned the Common Core into a hot button issue by tying it to the Obama administration’s federal agenda--drawing fire from GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney in the process--you’d think Duncan would’ve been more attentive to the signals he’s sending. You’d have been wrong. Is ED abashed about any of this, or even aware that this kind of brazen overreach is precisely what has driven Hill Republicans to distraction? Nope. Indeed, an ED press official sent around an e-mail advisory on Sunday that proudly linked to the stories on Duncan’s “I’m in charge” chest-thumping.

Living in a nation of laws means that it matters not only what public officials do, but how they do it. Yet, as with “Edujobs,” TARP, RTT, federal funding for the Common Core, gainful employment regulation, and much else, Duncan has shown little interest in such highfaluting concerns. Rather, in the classic Chicago style, the attitude seems to be that if the administration wants to do it, that’s good enough--whatever the statutory or Constitutional complexities, and regardless of whether this is all likely to turn out as intended.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.