The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern

Our nation survived the Great Depression and it has survived the more recent Great Recession.  The question now is whether it will survive the Great Dysfunction.

While the focus of many pundits and politicians is now on Congress’ inability to pass a budget, resulting in one Continuing Resolution after another, invention of new phrases such as the Fiscal Cliff, and the current sequestration scare, a closer examination reveals that Congress has recently been unable to pass other basic legislation that is long past due.

In my own field of Education Advocacy, the most glaring example of the Great Dysfunction is the failure of Congress to reauthorize or amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The NCLB was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 under President George W. Bush.  While the basic goal of having no child fall behind in school was laudable, the law was deeply flawed in many ways, including:

  • failure to provide children who were left behind with any individual remedies;
  • utilizing blunt punishments against individual schools and whole school districts whose students were not doing well on certain performance measures, without providing the necessary support to remedy those failures; and
  • over-realiance on deeply flawed standardized tests to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing to educate children.

NCLB required that 100% of all school children be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, with dire consequences for schools and school districts that failed to meet that standard.  While that sounded nice to politicians in 2001, as 2014 loomed closer, it became exceedingly obvious that such a standard was simply impossible to meet.

NCLB was set up to be reauthorized with probable changes in 2007, with the understanding that this law was experimental and would need adjustments.  Indeed, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy worked side by side with President Bush to try to accomplish that goal prior to both of their departures from office, but due to the Great Dysfunction, they failed to achieve passage.

President Obama took up the mantle by renaming NCLB by its old name, the ESEA, and proposed sweeping changes in 2010.  In fact, the Senate Education Committee passed bi-partisan revisions in 2011.  But, once again, the Great Dysfunction took over and the bill did not pass.

Given the looming disastrous 2014 deadline, and the overriding power of the Great Dysfunction, the Obama Administration began to implement state by state waivers of the ESEA in 2012.  As of right now, 44 states along with Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have requested waivers.  The Dept. of Education has granted 34 states and the District of Columbia’s waiver requests.

Thus, the result of the Great Dysfunction in our schools is that the largest federal funding stream for our nation’s public schools is now implemented in at least 36 different ways through 35 different waivers and the remaining states continuing to operate under the now universally reviled NCLB.  While some members of Congress have chastised this overreach of Executive authority, there has simply been no progress to pass a revised ESEA.

A more detailed history of this debacle is available from the NY Times.

The question is, what will it take to emerge from the Great Dysfunction?  While many may say that we get the democracy we serve, Benjamin Disraeli put it well when he declared that,

The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

What we so desperately need are for our politicians to turn into statesmen, who recognize that the Great Dysfunction serves no one.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.