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The IRS, DOJ Wiretaps, Benghazi, Alms for Sebelius... and Ed Reform

Second terms are notoriously brutal. Clinton and Lewinsky. Reagan and Iran-Contra. Nixon and Watergate. Bush 43 and New Orleans, the Iraqi insurgency, financial meltdown, and everything else.

It didn't take long for Obama to join the club. His Attorney General has been nailed for wiretapping the Associated Press, bringing condemnation from even Obama-friendly precincts like CBS and the New York Times. We've now learned that the IRS targeted conservative groups on his watch, and lied about it. Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius has been shaking down businesses and charities, asking them to "voluntarily" contribute to help implement Obamacare. And then there's Benghazi...

The question today is how much any of this matters for schooling and education reform. The (perhaps) surprising answer: a lot. Why? Three reasons.

First, the Bush and Obama administrations have woven education policy much more tightly into federal and partisan politics than was historically the case. The old "apolitical" days of education policy were so placid due to a bipartisan willingness to focus on cutting checks and hoping for the best. Today, after NCLB, Race to the Top (RTT), and ESEA waivers, the shape of education reform is bound more tightly to the President and to Washington. Given that the President is already anathema on the right, the news that his Attorney General is wiretapping the media and the IRS is targeting Tea Party outfits is only going to make it tougher on GOP governors to be seen as Obama allies.

Second, all of this is certain to crop up when it comes to the Common Core. The IRS story, in particular, is the kind of thing that reminds us that sometimes paranoia is nothing more than prescience. The grudging revelation that the feared, rumored, but oft-denied abuse had in fact happened justifiably fuels skepticism about the worth of federal assurances. This will inevitably carry over to something where skeptics have been told that RTT dollars and ESEA waiver conditions are no big deal, because the Common Core is "state-led," "voluntary," and no cause for concern.

Conservatives are innately dubious of government's good intentions or that a little "friendly support" from Uncle Sam won't morph into a new federal claim. With the IRS abuses, DOJ wiretapping, and Sebelius casually telling firms that she and the Prez would appreciate a bit of "voluntary" support from the same firms she'll be regulating, it's hard to see how Common Core backers can keep dismissing such concerns as unreasonable.

Third, barring any remarkable developments, the President's $75 billion pre-K proposal-slash-tax increase is already dead. (Boy, that was fast!) The notion was always a long shot, unless Obama could corner House Republican leaders into a spot where they'd be eager to do some kind of big budget deal. Now, the travails and the immigration push mean the oxygen is pretty much sucked up through July or August. Then it'll be time to start crashing on a debt ceiling fix, and then on a budget deal, and then we'll be into an election year--when there's no way R's are going to agree to raise taxes. And, even if there proves to be room on the agenda, what are the odds that GOP lawmakers are going to be willing to create new federal programs in collaboration with an administration that they regard as Nixonian?

The price of a bigger federal role in championing, funding, or promoting education is that it makes schools and colleges more dependent on what happens in Washington. Ed advocates may want to keep that in mind. Bottom line: the next three-plus years in education are going to turn to a surprising degree on how Obama fares when it comes to the familiar second-term blues.

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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.

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