This morning NPR published an interview with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the presumptive next chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Unfortunately, if you were hoping the new GOP Senate would move decisively in the right direction on education, you may be disappointed. While the interview suggests we could see a moderate move in the right direction at the k-12 level, there is little reason for hope in higher or early childhood education.
For elementary and secondary education Alexander certainly says the right thing – the states should be in charge – and it is better that federal funds be block granted with few rules attached than delivered via numerous, micromanaged streams. So he is moving in the right direction when he says under a Republican plan, “Tennessee, Texas or New York would decide what the academic standards would be, what the curriculum would be, what to do about failing schools and how to evaluate teachers.” His general inclination is also right when he says he wants to “give states the option — not mandate — to take federal dollars and let those dollars follow children to the schools they attend.” Empowering parents beats simply feeding government monopoly schools.
Unfortunately, moving somewhat in the right direction isn’t the same as doing the clearly right thing. The Constitution does not allow federal funding of education (outside of D.C. and federal installations), nor does the record indicate that federal funding is educationally effective. The feds should therefore get out of education, including abandoning plans to provide private school choice, which if voucherized would eventually deliver stultifying federal rules and regulations to private schools nationwide.
Alas, things only go downhill in the interview after tackling k-12.
On higher education, as I feared, Alexander gives no indication he will do what must be done to address colossal waste and crippling price inflation: significantly reduce student aid. Indeed, what he seems most intent on doing is simplifying the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid, which makes sense from a paperwork-reduction standpoint but might actually lead to more aid flowing from Washington as more people complete aid applications. At least, though, Alexander recognizes the danger of the federal government trying to rate all of the nation’s postsecondary institutions, ranging from “Nashville Auto-Diesel College…[to] Harvard.”
And then there is pre-kindergarten. Again, Alexander rightly warns about federal micromanagement, but he seems to fully accept that Washington should be spending tens-of-billions of dollars on pre-k. Indeed, he states that, “The question is not whether early childhood education is a good idea. It’s how best to encourage it.” But the question absolutely is – or at least should be – whether early childhood education is a good idea. As the Cato Policy Analysis published last month by George Mason University professor David J. Armor made abundantly clear, the pre-k research simply does not support the conclusion that early childhood programs work, and talking like it is a settled issue does not make it so.
Based on this one interview, the good news is that Senate Republicans might try to make horrible federal education policy a little bit better. The bad news is that something made a little less horrible is still awfully bad.