George’s Will be Done on NCLB

With reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) a total no-go for this year and probably next (since neither party wants the headache of having to fight over this hated law during an election year), it seemed that any serious discussion of NCLB was finished for the foreseeable future. And then along came columnist George Will, writing on Sunday that:

No Child Left Behind, supposedly an antidote to the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” has instead spawned lowered standards. The law will eventually be reauthorized because doubling down on losing bets is what Washington does. But because NCLB contains incentives for perverse behavior, reauthorization should include legislation empowering states to ignore it.

Will is right, and his column has gotten some people a little nervous.

Over at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) blog, Michele—with whom I served on a NCLB panel last week but who’s last name I can’t remember (sorry Michele)—is concerned about killing federal involvement in education because she thinks that without Title I funding “the achievement gap would probably be even greater.” Now, you can’t disprove a negative so I can’t directly refute this argument, but one look at federal spending on education versus academic performance shows pretty clearly that federal money does almost no academic good. Indeed, Andrew Coulson and I compared spending and performance in End It, Don’t Mend It: What to Do with No Child Left Behind and concluded that since the feds have been seriously involved in education “we have suffered…a catastrophic decline in educational productivity, analogous to buying 1970s cars today and paying twice their original selling price.”

Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Foundation has a different concern than Michele. He thinks leaving education up to states would be no better than leaving it to NCLB, and might be worse. He’s wrong—NCLB has encouraged states to lower standards—but it’s certainly true that state control of education hasn’t been working in a lot of places for a long time. Why? For the same reason it doesn’t work when education is controlled from Washington: politicians, bureaucrats, school administrators and other policymakers are concerned about their own self-interest first and foremost, and the best way to serve that is to have as little accountability, and as much money, in public schooling as possible.

Petrilli’s solution to the problem is “to move towards national standards and tests….It need not be a federal project–it probably shouldn’t be–but could result from state collaboration. Uncle Sam might provide some seed money (or the Gates Foundation could), and maybe offer incentives (money, regulatory relief) for states to sign up.”

Now, forget the fact that once the federal government provides “seed money” and other “incentives” to adopt national standards they will become federal standards. The really important point is this: For decades we have seen policymakers at every level of government put their own self-interest first, keeping standards low and money high. There is absolutely no reason to believe that somehow all the tigers will change their stripes with national standards. Make the standards high and they will be evaded. Make them low and they will be worthless. Either way, they will not work.

So what’s the solution to all this? Universal school choice. Give parents control over public education money instead of giving it to the educrats, and make the schools compete and provide a good education to stay in business. Only then will the catastrophic flaw in top-down control at any level—the parents and children the system is supposed to serve are completely at the mercy of their servants—be eliminated, and the power structure for real accountability be in place.

Of course, that’s not what the AFT wants because, well, teacher unions hate to compete for money. And Fordham? They pay lip-service to choice, but in the end seem incapable of concluding that parents don’t need their betters in Washington to tell them what to do. Neither of these things, though, change reality: Until parents have the real power in education that comes with school choice, nothing is going to improve.