Archives: 09/2009

Duncan’s NCLB Reauthorization Push Shows Extreme Tunnel Vision

In a major speech to be delivered today, education secretary Arne Duncan will call for an end to “ ‘tired arguments’ about education reform” and ask for input in crafting a ”sweeping reauthorization” of the federal No Child Left Behind act. His decision not to openly debate the merits of reauthorization – to simply assume it – guarantees the tiredness and futility of the discussion.

Americans have spent $1.85 trillion on federal education programs since 1965, and yet student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated while spending per pupil has more than doubled – after adjusting for inflation. The U.S. high school graduation rate and adult literacy rates have been declining for decades. The gap in achievement between children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates hasn’t budged by more than a percent or two despite countless federal programs aimed at closing it.

The secretary himself acknowledges that after more than half a century of direct and increasing federal involvement in schools, “we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.

In light of the abject and expensive failure of federal intrusion in America’s classrooms, it is irresponsible for the Secretary of Education to assume without debate that this intrusion should continue.  Cutting all federal k-12 education programs would result in a permanent $70 billion annual tax cut. Given the stimulative benefits of such a tax cut it is also fiscally irresponsible for the Obama administration to ignore the option of ending Congress’ fruitless meddling in American schools.

ACORN Challenge for the GOP

Republicans are all over the ACORN scandal and calling for an end to federal subsidies for the group. Well that’s great, but it’s not exactly going out on a limb and pushing for a major budget reform.

Why doesn’t the GOP use this as an opportunity to call for completely ending the programs that funded ACORN? Wouldn’t it be better to save the $13 billion a year that HUD spends on so-called “community development” programs, rather than just the few million dollars a year that taxpayers spend on ACORN?

The federal programs that funded ACORN are particularly wasteful ones, including Community Development Block Grants, Housing Counseling Assistance, and others as Tad DeHaven has explained.

At a minimum, the GOP should be arguing that with deficits of $1 trillion the federal government cannot afford to intervene in classic local and private activities such as community development. Boehner and Canter want the IRS to cut ties with ACORN, but they should be leading the charge to end porky “community development” spending altogether.

State Secrets, State Secrets Are No Fun

Despite Barack Obama’s frequent paeans to the value of transparency during the presidential campaign, his Justice Department has incensed civil liberties advocates by parroting the Bush administration’s broad invocations of the “state secrets privilege” in an effort to torpedo lawsuits challenging controversial interrogation and surveillance policies. Though in many cases the underlying facts have already been widely reported, DOJ lawyers implausibly claimed, not merely that particular classified information should not be aired in open court, but that any discussion of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” of detainees to torture-friendly regimes, or of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, would imperil national security.

That may—emphasis on may—finally begin to change as of October 1st, when new guidelines for the invocation of the privilege issued by Attorney General Eric Holder kick in. Part of the change is procedural: state secrets claims will need to go through a review board and secure the personal approval of the Attorney General. Substantively, the new rules raise the bar for assertions of privilege by requiring attorneys to provide courts with specific evidence showing reason to expect disclosure would result in “significant harm” to national security. Moreover, those assertions would have to be narrowly tailored so as to allow cases to proceed on the basis of as much information as can safely be disclosed.

That’s the theory, at any rate. The ACLU is skeptical, and argues that relying on AG guidelines to curb state secrets overreach is like relying on the fox to guard the hen house. And indeed, hours after the announcement of the new guidelines—admittedly not yet in effect—government attorneys were singing the state secrets song in a continuing effort to get a suit over allegations of illegal wiretapping tossed. The cynical read here is that the new guidelines are meant to mollify legislators contemplating statutory limits on state secrets claims while preserving executive discretion to continue making precisely the same arguments, so long as they add the word “significant” and jump through a few extra hoops. Presumably we’ll start to see how serious they are come October. And as for those proposed statutory limits, if the new administration’s commitment to greater  accountability is genuine, they should now have no objection to formal rules that simply reinforce the procedures and principles they’ve voluntarily embraced.

Evidence, Please?

A couple of days ago the Common Core State Standards Initiative released a new draft of its national, “college- and career-readiness” math and English curricular standards. The content of the standards isn’t of huge interest to me – the biggest dangers are in the implementation of standards, not the drafting – but what is of great interest is determining whether having national standards makes sense in the first place. Unfortunately, it appears that many standards fans couldn’t care less about that little concern.

To satisfy my interest, I’ve been delving into empirical work that might back claims that national standards are necessary for educational success, or just that they improve academic outcomes. And what have I found? As I laid out in a recent National Review Online op-ed, and argue today on the New York Times“Room for Debate” blog, there’s hardly any such evidence. There is scant good research on national standards, and what there is largely ignores serious questions about the confounding impact of such factors as culture and changing educational attitudes.

This dearth of research explains why national standardizers are almost totally silent about evidence and instead defend their proposals with soundbites about high expectations for all kids, or the ”craziness” of having 50 state standards.  It also explains why they seem to be in a big hurry to get standards drafted, and why the Obama administration is already dangling billions of dollars in front of states to get them to “voluntarily” adopt whatever the CCSSI produces. Quite simply, were the public to find out that national standards are essentially an untested drug being slipped down their throats, they might object. And nothing, it seems, is more important to the national standards crowd than ensuring that that doesn’t happen.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Americans Should Not Expect Much from Obama’s Visit to the UN

Barack Obama speaks at the UN general assembly. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/GettyPresident Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this morning, and his chairing of the UN Security Council on Thursday, is a grand attempt to tell the world–after eight years of George W. Bush–that the United States will no longer go it alone.

The president has a very difficult task, however, if he expects to invest the United Nations with renewed credibility. The UN is a weak and fractured institution, whose limited power and authority has been steadily undermined by a progression of U.S. presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. We should not forget that President Bill Clinton explicitly circumvented the UN Security Council when he chose to intervene militarily in Kosovo in 1999. Clinton’s evasion of the UNSC established a precedent for future military intervention that the Bush administration happily capitalized upon to send troops into Iraq in 2003.

Susan Rice, our current UN ambassador, endorsed this approach in 2006 when she called for U.S. military action against Sudan. Prior UN approval of such a mission was unlikely, but ultimately unnecessary, Rice argued at the time, because of the precedent set by President Clinton in Kosovo.

For American policymakers who have demonstrated such disdain for the UN in the past to now profess great respect for the institution should not surprise us. The UN is only as relevant as the member states wish it to be. In areas of common concern, the desire to cooperate and compromise may temporarily trump concerns over protecting state sovereignty and preserving freedom of action to deal with urgent security threats. In most cases, however, we can expect the member states, with the United States in the lead, to pursue policies that they believe (not always correctly, as we learned in Iraq) will advance their security. And if the UN weakly sanctions such actions after the fact, or refuses to do so, that will only reveal its irrelevance.

The Return of the Boogie Man, Zelaya

Manuel ZelayaManuel Zelaya’s return to Honduras is clearly intended to disrupt that country’s presidential election scheduled for late November. The political campaign was taking place in a calm and orderly manner, in full accordance to Honduran law. Panama had already announced that it would recognize the election as legitimate, and it was apparent that sooner or later more countries would make the same decision. Unfortunately, a peaceful and lawful election process in Honduras is not in Zelaya’s interest.

That Zelaya has been aided by Venezuela and its populist allies in the region in his return to Tegucigalpa is unsurprising. What is astounding is Brazil’s deep involvement–allowing its embassy to be used as a base of political operations by Zelaya, counter to international norm. Even more startling U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assessment of Zelaya’s return as a positive development, despite the possibility of violence. The international community is inexcusably crossing the boundaries of diplomacy in dealing with Honduras.

Wednesday Links

  • Signals indicate that the market just might be on the rebound. That’s great,  but it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves, says Johan Norberg.  “We must never forget that the light at the end of the tunnel can be an approaching train.”
  • Michael Cannon continues his debate in the LA Times: The dirty little secret is that “Obama-care” isn’t about reducing health care costs or making coverage more secure. It’s about robbing Peter to pay Paul.