Tight on Standards, Loose Grip on Reality

As promised (actually, a week later than promised) I have read the Fordham Institute “Briefing Book” for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. As expected, it’s big on trumpeting national standards, and squishy on almost everything else. Perhaps most aggravating, though, is how loose it is in characterizing the views of those of us at the Cato Institute, who apparently are part of the big group of education analysts who love the idea of Washington lavishing money on education but are, presumably, too blinkered to want to get results for it:

 

The local controllers. These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

Where, exactly, has someone from Cato written that Uncle Sam should keep dropping ducats on education? Certainly not here, where I call for complete elimination of federal involvement in education save civil rights enforcement, and a return of all federal education funds to taxpayers. You won’t find it here, where Chris Edwards calls for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and zeroing out all its spending. And you won’t discover it here, where Andrew Coulson and I propose that “NCLB not be reauthorized and that the federal government return to its constitutional bounds by ending its involvement in elementary and secondary education.”

Sadly, reporting the truth doesn’t appear to be as important to Fordham as producing a strawman — some group that’s portrayed as totally irrational, allowing Fordham to show how ”realistic” they are by coming up with relatively reasonable sounding policy proposals. It’s a grating, superficial tactic employed by Fordham that Jay Greene and his gang have long harped on.

The funny thing is, in the end there isn’t anything particularly realistic about Fordham’s proposal. Basically, Fordham would have the federal government force all states to adopt the Common Core standards — while adding science and history standards — to get back money that came from their citizens to begin with, or adopt standards that some state-federal hybrid panel of “experts” deemed “just as rigorous as the Common Core.” This would somehow prevent “an unwarranted intrusion by the federal government in state matters.” Because, of course, it is much less intrusive to have an option of having some federally mandated Frankenstein’s panel tell you if the standards you came up with are as good as the federal standards, or just having the feds set one standard.

Then there’s Fordham’s accountability — er, “transparency” — proposal, which would force states to annually spit out “reams” of data on outcomes “sliced and diced in every way imaginable.” Once the tons of data confetti are dumped, Fordham would rely on public pressure from seeing the mess to force reform. And how would the public force said reform? Don’t worry about it — “realism” dictates that all we need are national curriculum standards, testing, and data, data, data!

So, sadly, Fordham’s “realism” fails where it always seems to fail: In ignoring actual reality. Thanks to the phenomenon of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs that is a basic part of representative government, the people who benefit most directly from specific government policies will be most heavily involved in the politics behind those policies, and will bend them to serve themselves, not the “public good.” In the case of education, the people employed by the schools — the teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, etc. — have the most power, and will gut anything used to hold them accountable, just as they have for decades. And there is nothing — nothing — in the Fordham proposal that will keep this from happening again, no matter how centralized the standards or humongous the data dumps. Indeed, centralized standards provide one-stop shopping for special interests!

Only one thing breaks the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs conundrum, and it is taking government out of the equation and forcing educators to earn the money of customers. But for Fordham and others who, ultimately, seem to want to dictate what every child must learn, that is a bit of realism much too far.