(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
Proponents of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) assured us that it would curb executive overreach by the U.S. Department of Education. Skeptics like Neal McCluskey and Lindsey Burke warned us that the law didn’t go nearly far enough. In their view, ESSA contained enough ambiguous language that a clever EdSec or her staff could mold it into practically anything.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the skeptics were right. (Neal jokes that he was wrong, but he was only wrong about which ambiguous language the DOE would exploit first.) Earlier this month, the feds rejected Delaware’s ESSA compliance plan because aiming to cut the number of low-performing students in half by 2030 is “not ambitious enough.” You see, ESSA calls for “ambitious” goals, but doesn’t define the term “ambitious.” Acting assistant secretary Jason Botel explained to the New York Times, “Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious.”
As the skeptics said, give the feds an ambiguously worded cookie and soon they’ll be redefining that cookie to mandate that all children achieve proficiency in cookie baking by 2030. Or, y’know, something “ambitious” like that.
To Rick Hess, the whole thing sounds eerily similar to Soviet central planning:
General Secretary: Comrades, I call to order this meeting of Politburo Bureau of the Communist Party. We will start by turning to the implementation of our new Every Farmer Succeeds Act. Comrade Minister?
Minister of Agriculture Petrovsky: Thank you, comrade General Secretary. Comrades, you will recall that we adopted the Every Farmer Succeeds Act—EFSA, for short—after various complaints with the No Farmer Left Behind Act. That effort, initiated by the former regime, did not work out as intended.
Minister of the Interior Kirov: I’ll say, Mikhail! When we told farmers that they were to ensure that 100% of acres delivered adequate production, we got many complaints. We sent many to Siberia, but others still complained. Just to avoid running low on farmers, is good that we changed strategy.
Petrovsky: Thus, new Every Farmer Succeeds Act. We are working hard to implement. Instead of telling farmers that 100% of acres must produce adequate grain, we now tell them we realize world more complicated than that.
General Secretary: So, what is problem whereof you spoke?
Petrovksy: In giving collectives more flexibility, we still told them to set ambitious targets. Yes? Yet we have encountered resistance from some collectives. In its wisdom, the Politburo told farms they needed to be ambitious. However, my deputy, Comrade Botelinksi, informs me that some of the collectives are only proposing to double production. We have decided that production must go up tenfold. Anything less is not ambitious.
General Secretary: Da. And so?
Petrovsky: We have told collectives to change their plans. They must promise to increase production tenfold.
Kirov: But, is that not what caused problem with No Farmer Left Behind in first place? That no one took targets seriously?
Petrovsky: Comrade, do you want people to go hungry? And, that was last time. This time will be different.
Lesson: don’t give the feds any cookies. They make a big enough mess without the crumbs.