Tag: nclb

Why Are Conservatives Incoherent on Federal Education?

For a nice overview of the counterproductive incoherence of Republican education efforts over the decades, check out this piece by Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute. And for a sense of how confused conservatives remain when they write pieces telling other conservatives how to have “good” federal education policy, read the same piece. Its history section gives you the first part, and, unfortunately, its other sections give you the rest.

Hess and Kelly – who are generally pretty sharp – furnish a terrific overview of what happens when you talk “local control” of government schools and decry federal micromanaging, but can’t stop yourself from spending federal money and love ”standards and accountability.” Basically, you get a great big refuse heap of squandered money, red tape, educational stagnation, and political failure.

Having laid all that out pretty nicely, you’d think that Hess and Kelly would reach the logical conclusion: Conservatives should obey the Constitution and get Washington out of education. But they don’t. Instead they give precious little thought to the Constitution, and make policy prescriptions that fundamentally ignore that government tends to work for the people we’d have it control. You know, concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; iron triangles – basically, the big problems Hess and Kelly decry at state and local levels.

Start with their constitutional argument (such as it is):

The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in schooling — and it always has. From the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside land for the purpose of building and funding schools, through Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 investment in math and science instruction after the launch of Sputnik, the federal government has recognized a compelling national interest in the quality of American education.

Wow! What a sweep of history! What a great many years this covers!

The thing is, most of those years see essentially no federal education activity, and the first year mentioned – 1785 – precedes the Constitution. Why very little activity between 1785 and 1958? Because relatively few people thought the national government had any role to play in governing education. That’s why neither the word “education” nor “school”  (or, for that matter, ”compelling national interest”) is in the Constitution, and even a commission created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that there is no constitutional federal role in education. Washington does have jurisdiction over District of Columbia schools, and a responsibility under the 14th Amendment to prohibit discrimination, but that’s it.

OK, to be fair, it could also be argued that Congress can constitutionally pass education provisions like those in the Land Ordinance. But not because Washington has power over education. No, because as you see in Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution, it has power over territories. Of course, states and districts are not territories, and the 10th Amendment reiterates what is clear from the granting of only specific, enumerated powers to Congress:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

In an effort to deal with the very clear failures of federal education policy – but without the clarity of following the Constitution – Hess and Kelly offer three things they think the Feds can and should focus on: transparency, research, and “trust-busting.” However, all three ignore the fundamental political reality that school systems tend to be controlled by their employees because the employees have the most at stake. And what are their incentives? Same as mine and yours: to get compensated as generously as possible and have no one hold them accountable for their performance. The result, of course, has been oodles of money spent without meaningful academic improvement.

Start with transparency. Lauding No Child Left Behind for having improved “citizens’ ability to gauge and compare school quality,”  Hess and Kelly argue that the Feds “should require that states collecting federal school funds measure and report detailed data on school quality and educational costs in a consistent, uniform way.” They caution, however, that Washington shouldn’t prescribe standards or curricula, but should measure “schools’ return on public investment.”

Talk about conflicted! How exactly do Hess and Kelly expect the Feds to both stop short of mandating curriculum and standards, and provide an accepted measure of specific schools’ return on investment? Even if you could thread the needle for a while, it is very hard to imagine Washington not eventually narrowing acceptable measures down to a single curriculum and test so that results could be uniform and distilled into soundbites. And what would likely happen even if the standards started off rigorous and the testing tough? The employees who would ultimately be held accountable would simply move their dumbing-down pressure from state and local levels to the federal level, where policy was now being made.  Nothing would be solved, and there would be huge added problems of a new, monolithic standard that could in no way effectively serve greatly diverse kids, as well as the quashing of competing curricular ideas.

Next we’ve got the research argument, which is predicated on the well-known contention that the incentives for private-sector investment in “basic” scientific research – which doesn’t offer immediate returns – are too weak to provide for optimal amounts. The Feds, therefore, have to step in with oodles of grant money. Hess and Kelly would like to extend that model to education research.

Education, however, is not particle physics, the kind of research we generally imagine as “basic.” The need for major equipment investment is not nearly as great for education, nor are the likely benefits of, say, studying the effects of flash cards as far distant as the industrial applications of string theory. Moreover, if we had broad school choice, with schools able to seek profit without penalty, educators would have every reason to invest in research and find better, more efficient ways to teach kids. Finally, there is good evidence that science funding is just as likely to translate into rent-seeking benefits to the scientists as scientific benefits to the public.

Oh, and the constitutional basis for education research spending? Hess and Kelly don’t even try to offer one.

Finally, we have “trust-busting.” Here even Hess and Kelly’s examples illustrate how mistaken their ideas are. While sensibly calling for a reduction in calcifying federal rules and regulations, Hess and Kelly also argue that the Feds should be able to set up “private” entities to compete with the public-school monopoly. They cite as an example the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, which provides a teacher preparation and certification process separate from those established by states. They also note that ABCTE has been “generally neglected.” Which is probably a good thing. After all, think of two other “private” federal creations: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Seems there can be big problems when Washington creates supposedly private entities.

Then there’s this: “A related role for federal lawmakers is to help lift the burden of bad past decisions and troubling policy legacies that hinder reform-minded state and local leaders.” Hess and Kelly argue that Washington should create a form of bankruptcy that lets states and districts render null and void labor contracts and other obligations that make it hard for them to do business. And what example do they use of organizations that have been crippled by “legacy” contracts? General Motors and Chrysler.

Of course, thanks to the federal government, GM and Chrysler didn’t go through normal bankruptcy, did they? No, they went through processes jury-rigged to favor politically important special interests. That lesson should be screaming at Hess and Kelly: Give Washington power over something and they won’t use it for the common good. They will use it to reward the politically powerful, the very state and local problem Hess and Kelly are trying to solve!

The simple reality is that the federal government is no less subject to special-interest control – the ultimate result of the basic political problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs – than state and local governments. Except, that is, that Washington is even more distant from the people than state and local governments, and if people don’t like their state or local schools they can at least move.

There is, really, only one solution to the basic government problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, and we do no one any favors by denying it: We need to end government control of education.  We need a free market, in which educators are free to teach as they see fit and are held accountable by having to earn the business of paying customers.

The federal role in getting to this, thankfully, is simpler than what must be done at state levels, where constitutional authority over education actually exists. All that Washington has to do is obey the Constitution and get out of education. And yes, Rick and Andrew, that is what the Constitution requires.

Bush or Obama: Can We Tell Who Shuffles the Edu-Chairs Better?

I’m a Paul Peterson fan, and I sure don’t think President Obama’s education grade should be very high, but I’m afraid Peterson is offering some pretty weak stuff in this op-ed hoisting President George W. Bush above the current POTUS in education policy.

The main problem is that Peterson is using broad National Assessment of Educational Progress data as his main evidence of Bush’s success and Obama’s failure. But not only are these data far too blunt to tell us much about a single administration’s policies—myriad forces are at work in education beyond federal rules and regulations—it’s a serious stretch to suggest that we should expect to see big testing gains from any policy within a year or two of its enactment. Peterson even hints as much late in his treatment of Obama, noting that “NAEP data are available for just the first two years of his administration, [but] the early returns are not pretty.”

“Early returns” is right, considering that President Obama only took office in 2009, the first winners of Race to the Top—Obama’s main “reform” driver—weren’t declared until late August 2010, and the NAEP exams were administered between January and March of 2011.

More troubling, though, is the praise Peterson heaps on President Bush and No Child Left Behind. I’ve broken down NAEP scores six ways from Sunday and won’t rehash it all again, but based on improvement rates the NCLB era hasn’t been all that special. More important for this discussion, again considering policy implementation lags, it is a big leap to look at NAEP scores and crown Bush the edu-winner.

Let’s break down Peterson’s biggest advantage-Bush claim: “Overall, the annual growth rate in fourth- and eighth-grade math was twice as rapid under the Bush administration as under his successor’s.” (Actually, his biggest claim is that Bush’s fourth-grade reading performance is “infinitely” better than Obama’s, but that’s because there’s been no gain under Obama, not because under Bush scores were numerically much better.)

By far the biggest increase in 4th grade math scores that included Bush presidency years occurred between 2000 and 2003, when the average score rose three points per year. Pretty impressive, but Bush didn’t become President until 2001, and NCLB wasn’t enacted until January 2002. With NAEP administered between January and March 2003, NCLB was only law for about a year in that time span, and it took much of that year for people just to figure out what NCLB was all about. In other words, it is unlikely—though, granted, not impossible—that the improvement in that period was due primarily to NCLB.  Pull that span out of the Bush years, though, and growth was just 0.83 points (out of 500) per year. Years 2009 to 2011 saw a 0.50 point uptick—so neither president saw growth that was too impressive.

For eighth grade math, again excluding 2000-2003, the Bush years registered another 0.83 point growth rate, and 2009-2011 was again at 0.50.

The Bush years are a bit better than Obama’s just looking at NAEP—which alone tells us little—but neither president’s tenure is all that great, especially considering, as noted, several pre-NCLB periods saw faster growth. And then there’s the big picture: When you get to 17-year-olds—our schools’ “final products”—NAEP scores have been utterly stagnant for decades despite per-pupil expenditures roughly tripling and Washington getting ever-more involved.

Even if you could tell who nudged an Adirondack chair a millimeter farther from the abyss, arguing about which president is the better chair-shuffler is really missing the sinking ship.

The Other Federal Takeover

Right now the nation is fixated on the Supreme Court and health care, as well it should be. If the Court rules the wrong way and the individual mandate is upheld, seemingly the last limit to federal power—Washington can’t make you buy stuff—will be gone. So yes, please, let’s focus on ObamaCare.

When the arguments end and the health fight abates for a while, however, let’s pay some much needed attention to another federal takeover, one that is constantly being overshadowed by bigger things like wars, ObamaCare, and budget blowouts: looming federal domination of education.

There’s actually an immediate ObamaCare connection to education, though few will likely recall it. To make the CBO cost estimates come out right, Democrats attached the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) to the already immense legislation. SAFRA eliminated guaranteed college loans—loans originated through private lenders but completely backed by taxpayer money—and made almost all lending direct from the Treasury. It wasn’t a sudden takeover as many Republicans framed it—the guaranteed program already represented massive federal control—but it did push the private sector even farther to the student-lending fringes.

Much more insidious is what Washington has been doing in K-12 schooling.

The real sea change was No Child Left Behind, when the Feds went from primarily doling out money, to dictating that every state have standards and tests in math, reading, and science, and schools and districts make yearly “proficiency” progress. It was a huge ramping-up of already unconstitutional federal involvement.

At least NCLB, though, was enacted through the proper legislative process: Congress debated the law, voted on it, and the president signed it. These days, that’s just too much of a bother.

The Obama administration started unilaterally making education policy with the “Race to the Top,” a contest in which states competed for $4 billion in “stimulus” money. Among the administration-specified things states essentially had to adopt to win? National curriculum standards, better known as the “Common Core,” which we are told repeatedly are voluntary for states to adopt.

But wait. Didn’t I used to write that Race to the Top was $4.35 billion? What happened to the other $350 million?

It wasn’t part of the purse states competed for. Instead, the administration is using it to pay for the development of national (read: “federal”) tests to go with the Common Core.

In case all that weren’t enough, the Obama Administration has decided it’s tired of waiting for Congress to rework NCLB and is issuing waivers to states that promise to implement administration-approved reforms. Included in those is adopting “college- and career-ready” standards, a euphemism for the Common Core. In other words, the federal government is on the precipice of dictating the basic curriculum for every public school in America, and doing so without even the semblance of following the constitutional, legislative process. It’s not just a federal takeover, but an executive branch takeover.

Why hasn’t this gotten the sort of attention that’s been showered on health care?

Unfortunately, a large part of the problem is that people are simply accustomed to a government education monopoly. Historically such a monopoly hasn’t been the norm, but in our lifetimes it has, and government schooling advocates would have us believe that it is the cornerstone of our society. Not so with health care: lots of people want others to pay for their care, but the default has never been government assigning you a doctor and hospital based exclusively on your home address.

The other part of the problem is people simply don’t know about the federal edu-coup. This is especially the case with national standards, which advocates have purposely soft pedaled to avoid the fate of open and honest—but disastrous—federal standards efforts in the 1990s. And when the topic has come up in public discussion, classic propaganda techniques have been employed: repeat enough that the effort is completely “state-led and voluntary,” and people will believe you.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to reverse this. There’s no historic Supreme Court showdown on the horizon, but some states have started to resist federal control, and groups like the Pioneer Institute and Pacific Research Institute have undertaken concerted efforts to expose the Common Core. The biggest problem is that the public is largely oblivious to what’s going on. Which is why, after the ObamaCare Supreme Court arguments are over, we need to turn our attention to the other, almost complete, federal takeover: education.

Waiving Goodbye to the Constitution

Today the Obama administration will announce, according to early press reports, that ten states (of eleven that applied) will be receiving waivers from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. That’s right, the 2002 education law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush that absurdly insisted that all children will be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014. Now President Obama, unilaterally, is telling states that they can forget all that as long as they adopt – or at least have “plans” to adopt – reforms to his liking, such as national curriculum standards and teacher evaluations based on student standardized testing progress.

At this point, it is almost impossible to keep track of the federal savaging of the Constitution in supposed service of education. First there was the federal expenditure of money, allowed by none of the enumerated powers, largely starting in the 1960s. Then there was the growing attachment of controls to that money – again, with no Constitutional authority – culminating in NCLB. Now there is the blatant disregard for the separation of  powers by a President who just decided he didn’t like waiting for Congress to reauthorize the law, and a Congress that exhibits no spine whatsoever when it comes to this power grab because, well, no one seems to like NCLB.

Within this fiasco is all the evidence anyone should need to see why the Feds must be extracted from education. While Washington can drop humongous sacks of taxpayer dough on states and districts, and impose lots of bureaucratic rules and regulations, it can’t actually make education much better. Indeed, the whole point of NCLB was to end decades of Washington spending billions for no return. And what happened? Exactly what state, district, and school-level bureaucrats and unions expected: “accountability” swerved off the road before the 2014 deadline. It took longer than expected – it was a slightly more nerve-wracking game of political chicken than usual – but in the end the entrenched interests won because they’re the most motivated to bring the political pain. After all, their very livelihoods are at stake.

Aside from desegregation – which it has Constitutional authority to compel – the federal government has done no meaningful good in education. Why? Because the special interest-driven reality of politics ensures it can’t do any good. Yet we not only let it continue to trample the Constitution by meddling in education, we are allowing it to shred the Constitution into ever-smaller bits in order to “fix” the destruction it has wrought. And for this, all who turn a blind eye to the Constitution in the name of “the children” are to blame.

Promises Unfulfilled? What Next, Federal Education Failure?

On Sunday we marked the tenth birthday of the No Child Left Behind Act by reviewing its decade of futility and explaining why federal education adventuring is basically doomed to failure. (Enjoy some of our extensive coverage here, here, and here.)  This week we got yet more evidence that federal policy is always big on promises, itty-bitty on results. According to the latest reports, most of the winners of President Obama’s $4.35-billion “Race to the Top” competition are well off pace to fulfill the promises they made to get the dough. Well off schedule, that is, except for adopting the laughably dubbed “state-led and voluntary” national curriculum standards that the federal Race to the Top essentially demanded they use.

It’s just as I warned back in 2009, when Race to the Top was all the transformative rage in both left and right edu-policy circles:

Have plans for reform? Sure. Break down a few barriers that could stand in the way of decent changes? That’s in there, too. But that’s about it. And the money is supposed to be a one-shot deal – once paper promises are accepted and the dough delivered, the race is supposed to be over.

In light of those things, how is this more appropriately labeled the Over the Top Fund than the Race to the Top Fund? Because while not requiring anything, it tries to push unprecedented centralization of education power. It calls for state data systems to track students from preschool to college graduation. It calls for states to sign onto “common” – meaning, ultimately, federal – standards. It tries to influence state budgeting.

To be fair, the feds could still hold states accountable and keep the RTTT dough if and when the states break their promises. But that would still be another failure, and all the money states and Washington will have spent on RTTT will have gone for naught. But, then, spending for naught is something we should be very much used to by now.

A Decade of No Child Left Behind

Ten years later, it’s clear that the No Child Left Behind law is a failure. Instead of driving better academic performance of K-12 students, NCLB has cost many billions of dollars with no discernible positive impact on student achievement. Worse, the law has laid some of the groundwork necessary for the adoption of national standards, another step toward a fed-approved and standardized K-12 curriculum, an outcome many of the law’s former proponents explicitly oppose.

Neal McCluskey argues in this new video that the only reasonable (and Constitutional) course for the feds now is to simply bow out of K-12 education completely.

Reality, Meet Education Policy. Education Policy, Please, Meet Reality!

Nobody wants to be the guy – especially the Congress-guy – who says that we need to cut education spending. Nobody wants to be the target of attacks from both the well-intentioned and politically opportunistic that they hate children, only care about “the rich,” or any of the other deviousness  that long ago snuck up behind reasoned debate, threw a rope around its neck,  and pulled it backwards.

That’s been proven again today.

If you address it honestly, it’s nearly impossible to deny that federal education meddling has been not just a failure, but a failure with all sorts of bizzaro tendencies. Just look at today’s big edu-news story: Several months ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that this year 82 percent of the nation’s public schools would be identified as failing under the No Child left Behind Act.  A lot of people smelled pure politics behind the pronouncement – the administration wanted to unilaterally issue waivers from the law in exchange for states adopting POTUS-dictated policies – and today the Center on Education Policy released a report finding that only about 48 percent of schools “need improvement” under NCLB.

Wait, 48 percent? Isn’t that still really high?

It certainly seems so, but who the heck even knows? Every state sets its own standards-and-testing regime and most appear to have gamed the system wildly to stay out of trouble. So are all our schools failing? Half? And what even constitutes failing? No one knows, and few politicians appear willing to talk straight about it. (Of course, most probably have no idea what should constitute math and reading “proficiency” – the law’s goal – to begin with. Indeed, it’s an extremely subjective designation for anyone to make, though some in Washington act like they pretty much know what it is.)

Obviously, no sane individual would ever construct a system like this. But politically, all this illusion and contortion makes sense: Every politician wants to be seen as the savior of our children, but never wants the abuse that would come with creating and enforcing high standards, or being honest about progress made – or not made – under his or her watch. So we get all this sound, fury, and when you compare spending to test scores, educational nothing: 

 

Now, you’d think just the sheer lunacy of federal education policy making would make it clear to all that Washington should get out of education. And if that didn’t do it, the abysmal track record absolutely would. But no: Today the U.S. House of Representatives – the legislative body supposedly full of angry, tea-guzzling Republicans – produced their FY 2012 appropriations bill. And by how much did they cut the U.S. Department of Education budget? 20 percent? 2 percent? No, a microscopic 0.2 percent! A $153 million quark out of a $71.3 billion whale!

While office holders are wrongly considered our leaders by some – they are, in fact, our employees – you’d hope they’d lead a bit by ignoring short-term political consequences and cutting utterly failed programs. But that would be the triumph of hope over reality; politicians are as self-interested as anyone else, and will generally do only those things that help them keep or gain votes. So what must happen is that the public gets intimately familiar with the sick reality of federal education policy and votes based on it. And that means those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, and others who know the truth, must do a better job of getting that word out and helping education policy to finally meet reality.

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