Tag: chester finn

Punish Me? I Didn’t Do Anything—and Johnny’s Guilty, Too!

It’s hard to pin down what’s more frustrating about Michael Petrilli’s response to my recent NRO op-ed on national standards: the rhetorical obfuscation about what Fordham and other national-standardizers really want, or the grade-school effort to escape discipline by saying that, hey, some kids are even worse!

Let’s start with the source of aggravation that by now must seem very old to regular Cato@Liberty readers, but that  has to be constantly revisited because national standardizers are so darned disciplined about their message: The national-standards drive is absolutely not “state led and voluntary,” and by all indications this is totally intentional. Federal arm-twisting hasn’t just been the result of ”unforced errors,” as Petrilli suggests, but is part of a conscious strategy.

There was, of course, Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education, the 2008 joint publication of Achieve, Inc., the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers that called for Washington to implement “tiered incentives” to push states to adopt “common core” standards. Once those organizations formed the Common Core State Standards Initiative they reissued that appeal while simultaneously — and laughably — stating that “the federal government has had no role in the development of the common core state standards and will not have a role in their implementation [italics added].”

Soon after formation of the CCSSI, the Obama administration created the “Race to the Top,” a $4.35-billion program that in accordance with the CCSSI’s request — as opposed to its hollow no-Feds “promise” — went ahead and required states to adopt national standards to be fully competitive for taxpayer dough.

The carnival of convenient contradiction has continued, and Fordham — despite Petrilli’s assertion that “nobody is proposing” that “federal funding” be linked “to state adoption of the common core standards and tests” — has been running it. Indeed, just like President Obama’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — better known as No Child Left Behind — Fordham’s ESEA “Briefing Book” proposes (see page 11) that states either adopt the Common Core or have some other federally sanctioned body certify a state’s standards as just as good in order to get federal money. So there would be an ”option” for states, but it would be six of one, half-dozen of the other, and the Feds would definitely link taxpayer dough to adoption of Common Core standards and tests.

Frankly, there’s probably no one who knows about these proposals who doesn’t think that the options exist exclusively to let national-standards proponents say the Feds wouldn’t technically “require” adoption of the Common Core. But even if the options were meaningful alternatives, does anyone think they wouldn’t be eliminated in subsequent legislation?

Of course, the problem is that most people don’t know what has actually been proposed — who outside of education-wonk circles has time to follow all of this? — which is what national-standards advocates are almost certainly counting on.

But suppose Fordham and company really don’t want federal compulsion? They could put concerns to rest by doing just one thing: loudly and publicly condemning all federal funding, incentivizing, or any other federal involvement whatsoever in national standards. Indeed, I proposed this a few months ago. And just a couple of weeks ago, Petrilli and Fordham President Chester Finn rejected that call, saying that they ”have no particular concern with the federal government … helping to pay” for the creation of curricular guides and other material and activities to go with national standards.

So, Fordham, you are proposing that federal funding be linked to adoption of common standards and tests, and denying it is becoming almost comical. At least, comical to people who are familiar with all of this. But as long as the public doesn’t know, the deception ends up being anything but funny.

Maybe, though, Fordham is getting nervous, at least over the possibility that engaged conservatives are on to them. Why do I think that? Because in addition to belching out the standard rhetorical smoke screen, Petrilli is now employing the’ “look over there — that guy’s really bad” gambit to get the heat off. Indeed, after ticking off some odious NCLB reauthorization proposals from other groups, Petrilli concludes his piece with the following appeal to lay off Fordham and go after people all conservatives can dislike:

We might never see eye to eye with all conservatives about national standards and tests. But we should be able to agree about reining in Washington’s involvement in other aspects of education. How about we drop the infighting and spend some of our energy working together on that?

Nice try, but sorry. While I can’t speak for conservatives, those of us at Cato who handle education have certainly addressed all sorts of problems with federal intervention in our schools. But right now in education there is no greater threat to the Constitution, nor our children’s learning, than the unprecedented, deception-drenched drive to empower the federal government to dictate curricular terms to every public school — and every public-school child — in America. And the harder you try to hide the truth, the more clear that becomes.

By ‘No Federal Control’ We Mean ‘Yes, Federal Control’

People are starting to fight back against the sneaky push for nationalized curricula, and folks at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are revealing their true colors in response.

Yesterday, Fordham President Chester Finn and Executive VP Michael Petrilli responded to the national standards “counter-manifesto” released on Monday, and they were none too happy with its signatories, accusing them of peddling “half truths, mischaracterizations, and straw men.” What seemed to aggravate them most of all was the assertion that “common” standards would lead to de facto federal curricula, something they say neither they nor their national-standards loving friends – including the Obama administration – want.

At this point, who’s buying this? True, it’s possible that Fordham and friends might really not want a federal curriculum – I can’t read minds – but the federal government through Race to the Top has already bribed states into adopting the Common Core standards; Washington is paying for the development of national tests; and the Obama administration’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind would make national standards the law’s accountability backbone. So even if you don’t want this to lead to a federal curriculum, that is exactly what you are going to get. If the feds use money taken from taxpayers to force states to adopt national standards and tests, and if Washington rewards or punishes states based on those tests, then you have a federal curriculum. I mean, if it walks like a duck…

The good news in Fordham’s response, perhaps, is that they appear to have responded to my challenge to loudly renounce any federal funding for national standards and related material if they really want this to be voluntary. Unfortunately, they’ve responded with a resounding “no”: Finn and Petrilli write that “we have no particular concern with the federal government…helping to pay” for the creation of curricular guides and other material and activities to go with national standards.

This happiness to keep the feds paying pretty much puts the final rip in the tissue-thin “voluntarism” ruse. But if you’re not satisfied with my analysis, try this post over at Jay Greene’s blog, in which Jay reproduces a terrific fill-in-the-blanks analysis of Fordham’s tricky prose by Charles Miller, former chair of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas and a very astute observer of education politics. Let’s just say, he writes what I suspect everyone who is familiar with the federal government – and Fordham – is thinking.

One last thing bears mentioning. In defense of Finn and Petrilli, they do get one thing right: they take a lot of the counter-manifesto signatories to task for having pushed hard for state-level centralization while decrying such top-down control at the federal level. Of course, Fordham ignores little things like “federalism” and the “Constitution” with this argument, but it is true that a government monopoly is likely to be dreadful whether at the state or national level. Then again, they don’t actually make that argument either, so they’re actually just trying to score lame hypocrisy points. And they follow that with this cheapest of shots at libertarians and, well, any Americans who would like to have control over what their children learn:

Some libertarian signers of the counter-manifesto may indeed believe that we should let schools, districts, and parents make every single educational decision no matter how irresponsible, hare-brained, or even harmful to kids.

Why, that’s exactly what libertarians think! When contemplating policy, we’ve given no consideration to whether individuals will overall make better decisions than special-interest dominated government, or looked at the empirical evidence that education is better the more decentralized control is, or considered the value of freedom in society, or anything like that. We’re just mindlessly wedded to liberty and don’t care who gets hurt.

At last, the leaders of the national-standards-driving Fordham Institute have demonstrated – if not fully said – exactly what they think.  It is not a very comforting vision.

Help Break My Common Curriculum Fever

Over at Flypaper, Chester Finn suggests that people like me are either crazy or on the verge of it for fearing that the Shanker Institute’s “common content” manifesto might very well be another step toward federal control of American education.  

“Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales,” he writes, ”the Shanker Institute’s call for ‘common content’ curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack.”

Now, I wouldn’t say “panic attack.” To panic is to “be overcome by a sudden fear,” but I’ve been watching the move toward federal curriculum control for some time. Back in 2008 many of the groups behind the Common Core called for Washington to “incentivize” adoption of national standards. In 2009, the Obama administration made adopting common standards critical to compete in the so-called Race to the Top. In 2010, the administration put common standards front-and-center in the accountability piece of its No Child Left Behind reauthorization blueprint. Finally, that same year the U.S. Department of Education chose two consortia to develop national assessments to go with national standards. So when I read the Shanker Institute’s proposal, with its recommendation that the federal government spend taxpayer money to help implement ”purely voluntary” curriculum ”guidelines,” I didn’t panic. I saw the same obvious movement toward federal curriculum control I’d been observing for years.

But maybe I am a bit “feverish.” Maybe I do need to chillax a bit. Thankfully, I know just the thing to help me do that:  National-standards fans should pronounce publicly and unequivocally – perhaps issue another manifesto! – that they do not want federal money in any way connected to common standards, and state that they will oppose any effort to “incentivize,” “support,” “cajole,” “threaten,” or do anything else to states or districts to push them to adopt common curricula. Were national-standards champions to do that – you know, just demand that all this be as purely voluntary as they say it is – and I and others like me would no doubt be well on the road to recovery.

Somehow, I don’t expect my forehead to cool off anytime soon.

We Must Protect This Failing House! (And To Heck With the Kids In It)

The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” website is once again hosting a forum on education, to which I have contributed some thoughts. The topic: whether there should be federal tax credits for home schoolers.

I won’t rehash my contribution – obviously, you can read it right on the site – but I wanted to respond quickly to two other entries.

The first is from Chester Finn, president of our favorite conservative sparring partner in education, the Thomas B. Fordham Instititute. I just want to thank him for substantiating a warning I offer in my contribution: Create federal home-schooling credits and don’t be surprised if you also get requirements that home schoolers be judged on stultifying standardized tests.  It’s exactly what Finn calls for:

In return for the financial help, however, home-schooled students should be required to take state tests, just as they would do in regular school, charter school or virtual schools. And if they don’t pass those tests, either the subsidy vanishes or the kids must enroll in some sort of school with a decent academic track record.

The second person I want to respond to is former Bush II official Susan Neuman, who generally offers the right advice by warning even more starkly than I did that home schoolers demanding tax credits are making a deal with the regulatory devil. That’s fine, as is her reporting that by what indications we have “children who have been home-schooled do remarkably well, attending well-respected colleges and universities and going on to successful careers.” Unfortunately, all that was preceded by the Reductio ad Hitlerum of education debates: Smearing any effort to even the playing field between public schools and other educational arrangements as an “attempt … to destroy public education.”

I know that this will never catch on with people determined to preserve public schools’ near-monopoly on tax dollars no matter how well other arrangements actually educate children (not to mention serve taxpayers and society overall), but it is time to stop treating public education as if it is synonymous with public schools! Indeed, you demonstrate more dedication to public education if you fight to get kids access to the best education wherever it is offered than if you make your ultimate goal preserving government schools. Yet the monopoly defenders insist on smearing choice advocates as being at war with public education.

Stop with this trashy tactic. Wanna say supporters of educational choice are at war with public schools? Fine. But with public education? Sorry – if anything, they’re the ones truly fighting to get the best possible education for all.

Hooray for Fordham — Oooh, Wait

On many, many occasions I have taken the Fordham Institute to task for its big-government conservatism. Well, for about 90 percent of my time reading the latest from Fordham president Chester Finn, I was preparing to celebrate a conversion story of timeless proportions. It seemed Finn had finally gotten it, as he railed against the myriad failures of Washington and the foolishness of looking to government to solve our problems. I thought Finn had finally grasped that life and society are far too complicated for any puppet master of group or puppet masters to micromanage. I thought, at last, he’d fully appreciated the huge problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, which give special interests so much power. I thought maybe he’d read that copy of Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice  I’d sent to Fordham VP Michael Petrilli a few years ago.

And then I read Finn’s concluding paragraphs:

Even modest-seeming promises don’t get kept. Arne Duncan sensibly wants us to focus on turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of U.S. schools. Seems far more doable than NCLB’s labeling more than half our schools as needing surgery. Yet who really believes that the Education Department’s program of School Improvement Grants will yield this result? Nobody from Washington is flying out to turn around individual schools—as if any of them knew how—yet practically nobody outside the Beltway has a clue how to do it, either. Another dashed hope and unkept promise? Another issue for the Tea Party? Part of the reason for the (idiotic) calls to eliminate the Education Department altogether?

Government, in short, finds it difficult to fulfill its current responsibilities, coordinate its various parts, and honor its core obligations, many of which are vital just to keep us healthy, safe, and alive. How many more things should it try to do? Are not more promises by government a formula for failure and disappointment? A boost to libertarians who would have government cease and desist from just about everything? What if we just settled for scrambled eggs that don’t make us ill?

So let me get this straight: In light of constant, failed, bankrupting federal overreaching. In light of seemingly non-stop federal power-grabbing. In light of the Constitution’s very clear limits on federal authority that proscribe federal meddling in education – but, as most libertarians will tell you, rightly empower Washington to do some things – it is libertarians whom Finn implies are a bit crazy, and it is calling for elimination of the Department of Education that he concludes is “idiotic”?

Unfortunately – and amazingly – you read that right.