Burning Down the Horse

Matthew Yglesias has sparked an interesting debate over the No Child Left Behind act. It’s an internecine argument among the left-of-heart as to whether NCLB is:

a)     A Trojan Horse intended to destroy public education
2)     A well-intentioned mistake, or
iii)     The inevitably disappointing result of politics as usual

Matthew takes the second of those views, citing Cato scholars’ opposition to the law as evidence that we are… opposed to it. Seems a commendably straightforward line of reasoning to me, but one of his commenters, “Neil,” disagrees:

No, the libertarian think tanks are waiting quietly inside the horse; they will come pouring out waving their policy whitepapers only when the horse is safely within the gates and American schools are deemed to have failed.

Sorry, Neil, but Matthew’s right. Libertarian and free market scholars were loudly attacking government-imposed education standards long before the NCLB was passed, and have continued to do so thereafter. See, for instance, the section in my 1999 book Market Education titled “Government Imposed Curricula: Double-Edged Cookie Cutters.” And far from “waiting quietly inside the horse,” we had a forum at Cato last week at which I argued that the law is ineffective, harmful, inimical to the policies that can achieve its goals, and unconstitutional.

Anyone who checks out the videos or pod-casts of that event will see that at least the second and third explanations for the NCLB listed above are valid. Listen to Dick Armey telling the audience that Congress voted against national standards under Clinton and for them under Bush for partisan political reasons. Listen to Susan Neuman, who helped design the law, explain how good intentions went awry under political pressure.

Yglesias is mistaken, however, when he says that Cato wants to destroy public education. The opposite is true. My colleagues and I are deeply committed to the ideals of public education – that all children should have access to good schools; that they should be prepared not only for success in private life but participation in public life; that schools should foster harmonious social relations.

It is precisely because we are committed to those ideals that we recommend the adoption of a free education marketplace coupled with financial assistance to ensure universal access. Such a system is not an alternative to public education, it is a far better implementation of public education (to borrow terminology from my software past) than the creaking, calcified monopoly we languish under today.

Our current state-run school system is only a tool, not an end in itself. And it just happens to be the wrong tool for pursuing our shared ideals of public education.