Archives: 10/2009

Wednesday Links

  • Cato v. Heritage on the Patriot Act, Round III: “In hindsight, did Congress and the president react too hastily in 2001 by passing the Patriot Act just weeks after the 9/11 attacks?”

Federal Education Results Prove the Framers Right

Yesterday, I offered the Fordham Foundation’s Andy Smarick an answer to a burning question: What is the proper federal role in education? It was a question prompted by repeatedly mixed signals coming from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about whether Washington will be a tough guy, coddler, or something in between when it comes to dealing with states and school districts.  And what was my answer? The proper federal role is no role, because the Constitution gives the feds no authority over American education.

Not surprisingly, Smarick isn’t going for that. Unfortunately, his reasoning confirms my suspicions: Rather than offering a defense based even slightly on what the Constitution says, Smarick essentially asserts that the supreme law of the land is irrelevant because it would lead to tough reforms and, I infer, the elimination of some federal efforts he might like.

While acknowledging that mine is a “defensible argument,” Smarick writes that he disagrees with it because it “would presumably require immediately getting rid of IDEA, Title I, IES, NAEP, and much more.” He goes on to assert that I might “argue that doing so is necessary and proper because it’s the only path that squares with our founding document, but policy-wise it is certainly implausible any time soon.” Not far after that, Smarick pushes my argument aside and addresses a question to “those who believe that it’s within the federal government’s authority to do something in the realm of schools.”

OK. Let’s play on Smarick’s grounds. Let’s ignore what the Constitution says and see what, realistically, we could expect to do about federal intervention in education, as well as what we can realistically expect from continued federal involvement.

First off, I fully admit that getting Washington back within constitutional bounds will be tough. That said, I mapped out a path for doing so in the last chapter of Feds In The Classroom, a path that doesn’t, unlike what Smarick suggests, require immediate cessation of all federal education activities. Washington obviously couldn’t be pulled completely out of the schools overnight.

Perhaps more to Smarick’s point, cutting the feds back down to size has hardly been a legislatively dead issue. Indeed, as recently as 2007 two pieces of legislation that would have considerably withdrawn federal tentacles from education – the A-PLUS and LEARN acts – were introduced in Congress. They weren’t enacted, but they show that getting the feds out of education is hardly a pipe dream. And with tea parties, the summer of townhall discontent, and other recent signs of revolt against big government, it’s hardly out of the question that people will eventually demand that the feds get out of their schools.

Of course, there is the other side of the realism argument: How realistic is it to think that the federal government can be made into a force for good in education? It certainly hasn’t been one so far. Just look at the following chart plotting federal education spending against achievement, a chart that should be very familiar by now.

Education Spending

Notice anything? Of course! The federal government has spent monstrous sums on education without any corresponding improvement in outcomes!

Frankly, it’s no mystery why: Politicians, as self-interested people, care first and foremost about the next election, not long-term education outcomes. They care about what will score them immediate political points. That’s why federal politicians have thrown ever-more money at Title I without any meaningful sign it makes a difference. That’s why No Child Left Behind imposed rules that made Washington politicians look tough on bad schools while really just pushing more dough at educrats and giving states umpteen ways to avoid actual improvement. That’s why Arne Duncan vacillates between baddy and buddy at the drop of a headline. And that basic reality – as well as the reality that the people employed by the public schools will always have the greatest motivation and ability to influence government-schooling policies – is why it is delusional to expect different results from federal education interventions than what we’ve gotten for decades.

OK. But what about a law like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Hasn’t it helped millions of disabled kids who would otherwise have been neglected by states and local school districts?

For one thing, it is constitutional and totally appropriate under the 14th Amendment for the federal government to ensure that states don’t discriminate against disabled children in provision of education. IDEA, however, does much more than that, spending billions of federal dollars, promoting over-identification of “disabilities,” and creating a hostile, “lawyers playground” of onerous, Byzantine rules and regulations, all without any proof that the law ultimately does more good than harm. And again, this should be no surprise, because federal politicians care most about wearing how much they “care” on their reelection-seeking sleeves, no matter how negative the ultimate consequences may be.

Alright-y then. How about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? Isn’t it an invaluable source of national performance data?

NAEP results are used in the above chart, so obviously I have found NAEP of some value.  But does its usefulness justify ignoring the Constitution? Absolutely not. For one thing, instead of NAEP we could use extant, non-federal tests such as the SAT, ACT, PSAT, Stanford 9, Terra Nova, and many other assessments to gauge how students are doing. And as useful as NAEP may be, it sits perilously close to being as worthless as everything else that Washington has done in education. All that has kept it from being hopelessly politicized is that there is no money attached to how states and local districts do on it. And as Smarick’s boss at Fordham, Chester Finn, testified in 2000, even with that protection NAEP and other supposedly netural federal education undertakings are under constant threat of political subversion:

Unfortunately, the past decade has also shown how vulnerable these activities are to all manner of interference, manipulation, political agendas, incompetence and simple mischief. It turns out that they are nowhere near to being adequately immunized against Washington’s three great plagues:

• the pressing political agendas and evanescent policy passions of elected officials (in both executive and legislative branches)and their appointees and aides,

• the depredations and incursions of self-serving interest groups and lobbyists (of which no field has more than education), and

• plain old bureaucratic bungling and incompetence.

Based on all of this evidence, it is clear that the only realistic avenue for getting rational federal education policy is, in fact, to follow the Constitution and have no federal education policy. In other words, the very realistic Framers of the Constitution were absolutely right not to give the federal government any authority over education, and it is time, right now, for us to stop ignoring them. Doing anything else will only ensure continued, bankrupting failure.

Are Savvier Democrats Playing Rope-a-Dope?

Let’s simplify things and say there are essentially two parts to the health care bills moving through Congress: an individual mandate that would effectively nationalize health care, and a government-run program that would explicitly nationalize it slowly, over time.

One explanation for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) including the government-run program – supporters call it a “public option”; I prefer Fannie Med – in the Senate bill is that Fannie Med’s popularity is on the rise.  Another explanation is that Reid had to include it to remain majority leader and get left-wing Nevadans to work for his re-election.

But a third explanation, not inconsistent with the others, is that the savvier Democrats know that all they need to nationalize health care is an individual mandate.  So they’ll let Fannie Med take a beating, and then pass the more sweeping individual mandate when opponents are too exhausted and distracted by their “victory” over Fannie Med to notice.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)

This Week in History: Reagan Backs Goldwater

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. It came to be known to Reagan fans as “The Speech” and launched his own, more successful political career.

And a very libertarian speech it was:

This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.

Video versions of the speech here. Would that the current assault on economic freedom would turn up another presidential candidate with Reagan’s values and talents.

More on Reagan here and here.

Studying Confirmation Bias Tends to Convince People of the Existence of Confirmation Bias

If you were a federal contractor with millions of dollars in federal business, would you ever say that federal regulations are too burdensome? Would you tell a newspaper that you violated federal rules by turning away workers because a federal database reported a discrepancy between the information you submitted and the information the government holds?

I don’t think so.

But on National Review’s “The Corner” blog, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies takes a federal contractor’s self-serving statements about E-Verify as evidence that it’s “working fine.”

Of course it is! If you carefully consider the evidence you want to!

Your Tax Dollars at Work

The National Park Service announced Friday that it has removed its superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park and reassigned him to work in a cultural resources office as an assistant to the associate director. His job duties have not yet been determined.

John A. Latschar said Thursday that his demotion was in response to the public disclosure of Internet activity in which he viewed more than 3,400 “sexually-explicit” images over a two-year period on his government computer – a violation of department policy. The misconduct, which Latschar acknowledged in a sworn statement, was found during a year-long investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general and was documented in an internal Aug. 7 report obtained by The Washington Post.

The reassignment came after a Post report Monday about the results of the investigator’s forensic analysis of Latschar’s computer hard drive, which showed “significant inappropriate user activity” and numbered the “most sexually-explicit” images at 3,456….

David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service, said Latschar’s annual salary of $145,000 and his pension will not be affected. The cultural resources office is based in Washington, but Latschar will commute from his home in Gettysburg to a Park Service office about 30 miles away in Frederick, Barna said.

Hey, can I get that deal? If I download 3,500 pornographic images on my office computer, can I get reassigned to a telecommuting job with no defined duties at my current salary and pension? As superintendent of a very visible national park, Latschar had a job with a lot of pressure, lots of criticism, management challenges, etc. Now he’s going to be some sort of undefined “assistant to an associate director in a cultural resources office,” but he won’t have to actually go to the cultural resources office, and he’ll still get the same pay and benefits he was getting for doing a real, stressful job. Does anyone in the federal government ever get fired?

How Did the FCC Come to Acquire This Power?

Jeff Eisenach and Adam Thierer have a great essay in The American honoring the 50th anniversary of Ronald Coase’s article “The Federal Communications Commission.” It’s timely given the FCC’s proposal to establish public utility-style regulation of the Internet under the banner “net neutrality,” and it’s a good general warning to Neo-Progressives who “see market failure as the source of most problems, and government as the centerpiece of most solutions.”