The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Ever-Present Danger of Federal Overreach at the Education Department

As the politics surrounding President Trump’s plan to spend $20 billion advancing school choice in an as-yet unspecified way are forming, frequent NRO contributor Frederick M. Hess put the dangers of such a plan into perspective on his blog this week:

If I was a passionate opponent of school choice, I think I’d be ecstatic at the prospect of having Donald Trump’s administration champion a big, visible, controversial school choice bill. I’d love to turn the localized, diffuse campaign for choice into a prominent part of Trump’s federal agenda. I’d welcome the chance to frame school choice as a debate about whether Washington ought to be telling states and communities how to run their schools, and to turn the issue into a referendum on how one feels about Trump.

When federal overreach on education creates discontent, the results can be volcanic for the party in power, whose newfound control leads to political disaster. What episode from recent history does Hess point to as manifesting that phenomenon? Obama pushing Common Core:

After all, we’ve just witnessed the biggest Pyrrhic victory in the annals of federal education policy. I’m referring, of course, to the Common Core. Recall that, back in 2009 and 2010, Common Core advocates thought they had a slam dunk on their hands. Once, it was laughable to suggest that the Common Core might wind up being controversial. (I know, because I used to get laughed at when I’d suggest it.)

Many things went south. But the most costly may have been the energetic boost they got from the Obama administration—assistance that, at the time, struck Common Core proponents as such a remarkable gift.

 . . . 

It’s easy to imagine Trump doing for school choice what Obama did for the Common Core. That prospect should make school choice advocates nervous. If you ask an Obama or a Trump to champion your cause, they’re going to wind up leading the parade.

Considering that Trump wants to pass a massive school-choice bill, this could be the exact trap that his administration falls into. If federal dollars get mismanaged — as Obama’s School Improvement Grants were, to the tune of $7 billion — then the cause of school choice may suffer political consequences at the state level, as Common Core did when it came to signify federal overreach. It could also get dragged down if Trump’s own popularity takes a nosedive.

With Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos approved by the Senate education committee — and only one step away from taking the reins of the department — Republicans should heed Hess’s advice.

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