There He Goes Again: Obama's Waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act

President Obama recently announced his decision to, in the words of an Associated Press report, "free 10 states from the strict and sweeping requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act" by issuing waivers to them.  This is a fundamentally flawed decision.

This is not a defense of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Education is properly a local and state issue.  Federal intervention serves only to increase expenses, stifle creativity, thwart flexibility, create needless bureaucracies, and centralize more power in Washington.  What is objectionable about Obama's waivers is not that he is neutering NCLB, but how and why he is doing it.  There are three key problems here:

1. Obama vs. freedom in education

Although the AP says the president is "free[ing]" states from the burden of complying with NCLB, one wonders how "free" these states will be.  In exchange for receiving a waiver, states had to make certain "promises."  What those promises were, and how strong the strings attached to them will be, we don't yet know, but in light of President Obama's philosophy of government, it would be premature to celebrate a new era of liberation from federal intervention in education.  In fact, if you recall the president's State of the Union address last month -- which I happened to attend -- he energetically called for new laws to compel everyone under 18 to attend school, regardless of aptitude, interest, or willingness.

If the president truly wanted to expand freedom in education in a meaningful way, he would champion school choice.  Both economic theory and practice show plainly that the most effective way to increase the quality of any product is to expose it to the rigors of free competition.  Since Obama routinely and resolutely aligns himself with the teachers' unions and opposes free choice, his beliefs on educational freedom are readily apparent.

2. Obama vs. the rule of law

The president's plan to exempt some states from NCLB, but not others, epitomizes his standard modus operandi of government (think ObamaCare waivers): the divisive practice of picking winners and losers, always reinforcing the message that you need to please him to catch a break, and if you dare to oppose him, you will be penalized.

This mocks the hallowed American principle of "equality before the law."  It seems as though every policy he proposes involves granting a privilege.  Privilege (derived from the Latin words for "private law") is the antithesis, the repudiation, of the rule of law.  You have either one or the other -- that is, either the law applies to all impartially or it does not.  This president (again, reread his SOTU address) wants to take from people who do A and give it to people who do B; to take from businesses that make this and give to businesses that make that; to favor American businesses that operate here and penalize American businesses that operate there.  Whether it involves education, health care, taxes, or subsidies, the president seems incapable of endorsing a law that treats all Americans equally.

3. Obama vs. federalism

The governors and legislatures of all the states -- both those that have been granted waivers and those that haven't -- should unite in protesting Obama's ill-conceived policy.  It undermines federalism by infringing on the prerogatives of state governments.  If a president has the discretionary power to rule that federal laws apply only to some states, then the federal government has usurped the state governments' prerogative to craft the statutes by which residents of that state will be governed.  Historically, the federal government has passed laws that applied equally to the residents of all states, while the state governments have enacted statutes that applied only within their own state.

The problem with the selective suspension of NCLB is the president intends to apply different laws to Pennsylvanians from those applied to Californians, Floridians from Montanans.  This is absurd and unfair, if not explicitly unconstitutional.  If a federal law is too flawed to apply to some states, then it shouldn't be in effect for any states.

In fact, Obama's decision to grant waivers to certain states is an implicit admission that educational policy is properly the province of the states, not of the federal government.  The president should ask Congress to repeal NCLB rather than compounding the problems it has caused by selectively enforcing it.

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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