(Guest post by Greg Forster)
The executive order issued yesterday by the president, whose headline suggests it creates a federal school choice program for students whose schools have gone all-remote, is vaporware. It creates no program, and what it does do would require about a year of sustained bureaucracy-wrangling and lawsuit-fending-off effort by the White House and the HHS secretary before it would produce any real effect. As you may have heard, the present administration has just a wee bit less than that amount of time before it’s replaced by an incoming administration that will kill the effort before it’s even mature enough to be described as embryonic.
Nothing important will come of it.
It’s a good thing, too, because a national school choice program would be a disaster for the choice movement.
Yes, even if it were technically constitutional (which this wouldn’t be).
And especially if it came from the current president.
The order directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to “take steps, consistent with law, to allow funds available through the Community Services Block Grant program to be used by grantees and eligible entities to provide emergency learning scholarships to disadvantaged families for use by any child without access to in-person learning.”
If you know anything about how government actually works, you can see the problems immediately:
1) The program is supposed to be created by HHS, which, like all federal departments, is staffed by career civil servants who are, on a good day, just barely responsive enough to the existence of their nominal superiors to engage in minimal efforts to pretend to comply with their orders. Actually getting a federal department to do something big and difficult – as this would be – requires tons of riding herd with a strong hand. Alex Azar could not just whip this off himself in his spare time even if he were an education policy expert, as opposed to a career pharmaceutical executive with no experience in education policy. (The need to rely on the bureaucracy is the obvious reason this assignment was not given to Betsy DeVos in the Education Department.)
PS At least the president timed this to arrive just at the moment when HHS is drowning in vaccine-rollout challenges!
2) Because this is a flagrantly unconstitutional usurpation of congressional appropriations powers, the federal “program” here is not an actual school choice program, it is a set of federal regulations (those are always quick and simple to write!) governing how recipients of block grants under an existing program are allowed to use their grant money. In other words, Azar is not being directed to create a school choice program (hard enough, see point #1), he is being directed to rewrite federal regulations in a way that will in theory induce federal block grant recipients to do so. It’s like the difference between trying to build a steel refinery out of empty cereal boxes and glue in an hour, and trying to get fifty other people to each build their own steel refinery out of empty cereal boxes and glue in an hour.
3) The above assumes an actual effort to wrangle the bureaucracy would be made. Given that Azar is not champing at the bit to do this, such an effort would require the president to drive it personally. The current president neither could nor would drive any such effort, for so many reasons that it sets a new standard for “overdetermined.”
4) Did I mention “flagrantly unconstitutional usurpation of congressional appropriations powers”? Wow, sure is a good thing the school unions don’t have any friends on Capitol Hill. Or know any lawyers. (When Arne Duncan dabbled in these shenanigans, Rick Hess and I both warned that he was creating a precedent the other party could use to justify its own abuses.)
School choice belongs in the states. If the feds want to get in on the action, they have tons of legitimate options – make the DC voucher universal, create choice on military bases, provide an ESA as an employee benefit for federal civil servants.
Instead we get this, which will only create a PR headache for the movement while helping no kids.
Since I recently mentioned my first-ever movie post, in which I correctly argued that Speed Racer was a better movie than Iron Man, I think I’ll close with Speed’s immortal words to the cheating Cannonball Taylor: “Get that weak shit off my track.”