Naively Heroic Expectations for NCLB and National Standards

From the Teachers College Record, by way of AEI, we have Rick Hess of AEI and Checker Finn of the Fordham Foundation making another call for the federal government to fix most of what ails our K-12 education system.  NCLB, they argue, has major problems.  But in their view the way to fix it is relatively simple (emphasis added):

The trick is not to retreat from accountability, but to thoughtfully separate these components from one another and from naively heroic expectations.

Lawmakers should insist on a national X-ray using a uniform assessment that makes it simple to compare achievement across schools, districts, states, and demographic groups.

I’d really like them to unpack that black box. What exactly does insist entail?  A resolution expressing the sense of the Congress?  What should this very simple sounding uniform assessment look like, and what process and politics would get us to that goal?

The intense interest-group politics that would/has befall any attempt to create a national test makes this one of those naively heroic expectations that the authors warned us against.  I like the statements of the old Checker Finn who was skeptical of a high-stakes national test and concerned that even a NAEP used strictly for informational purposes was too vulnerable to political forces.  What happens when the results mean millions in federal funds?                                                                                             

And every state should be required to assess how effectively schools are boosting student achievement and to intervene appropriately in faltering schools and mediocre districts–or else forfeit federal funds.

I have to say this remedy also sounds like one of those naively heroic expectations.  Just think of what people would say about politicians who voted to fix failing schools and save poor children by providing them with less money!  This is called the “dual-clientele trap,” and it made welfare reform in the 1990’s an extremely difficult endeavor (and welfare spending, unlike education spending, was massively unpopular).

How can these proposals ever work in practice?  Experience and logic suggest they never can.

Denmark’s Meager Tax-Cut Package

The good news is that Danish politicians have announced that taxes will be reduced. This is welcome news in a nation with the world’s highest income tax rate. Indeed, the tax burden is so onerous that even the OECD suggested it might not be a good idea to subject 40 percent of workers to marginal tax rates of more than 70 percent. Unfortunately, the tax cuts that have been proposed are akin to putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Instead of reducing the top tax rate, the government merely intends to adjust the income level where the top bracket takes effect. While this surely is better than nothing, the government also is raising taxes on energy and increasing an already bloated welfare system. Tax-news.com reports on Denmark’s less-than-exciting reforms:

The Danish government has announced its intention to cut taxes by DKK10 billion (EUR1.34 billion) per year in 2008 and 2009 in a bid to stimulate the labour market, and improve incentives to work. Under the proposed reforms, announced by the government on Tuesday, the income ceiling for the middle and top income tax brackets will be raised to DKK353,000 per year from DKK304,100, and to DKK381,300 per year from DKK365,000, respectively. …In the same announcement, the Danish government also promised that a broad economic plan for the next eight years would not raise any taxes between now and 2015. The economic package also promises DKK50 billion in extra spending to improve Denmark’s welfare system between 2009 and 2018. …To help offset the tax cuts, the government also announced that green taxes on energy consumption would increase from 2008 to match inflation. This would increase taxes on heating, water and electricity.

24 Hours of Ronald Reagan

On TCM, that is. This Friday, the world’s greatest TV channel will broadcast 15 of Reagan’s movies from 6 a.m to 6 a.m. In primetime, they’ll start with “John Loves Mary.” I hope my sister Mary, who married a man named John, gets to watch it. And then at 8 p.m. it’s the classic “Bedtime for Bonzo.” It’s actually pretty amusing to see Reagan as a young liberal college professor trying to prove the “nurture” side of the nature-vs.-nurture argument and saying that there are no bad kids, just bad environments. And then stay tuned for two of Reagan’s best, “Kings Row” – which gave him the title for his first autobiography, “Where’s the rest of me?” – and “Knute Rockne, All American,” in which he said for the first but certainly not the last time, “Win one for the Gipper.”

Now if only TCM would bump one of the lesser movies and stick in “The Speech” from 1964, we could hear Reagan say something more important, like

You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down – up to a man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

And wouldn’t that be a welcome alternative to alternating images of Bushes and Clintons on our TV sets?

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Another Great Moment in Local Government

At first, I thought this must be a gag story from The Onion, but a school in Arizona actually suspended an eighth-grade boy for five days (in a fit of generosity, later reduced to three days) for drawing a picture of a gun. It is not clear, though, whether the school’s absurd policy also means students are not allowed to do term papers about World War II, since that might necessitate discussion of weapons and violence:

An East Valley eighth-grader was suspended this week after he turned in homework with a sketch that school officials said resembled a gun… But parents of the 13-year-old, who attends Payne Junior High School in the Chandler Unified School District, said the drawing was a harmless doodle of a fake laser, and school officials overreacted. …Payne Junior High officials did not allow the Tribune to view the drawing. The Mostellers said the drawing did not depict blood, injuries, bullets or any human targets. They said it was just a drawing that resembled a gun. …The boy said…he was just drawing because he finished an assignment early.

Trouble in Utah, with a Capital “T”

School choice supporters were thrilled at the passage of the first universal voucher program in Utah this year. Unfortunately, the unions got enough signatures to put the law up for a referendum vote this fall and are gearing up to demolish it.

The Education Intelligence Agency Communiqué for this week reports that the National Education Association board of directors had an emergency conference call to consider a request by the Utah Education Association for $3 million to overturn the voucher law. The verdict?

“EIA has not yet heard the official results of the vote, but feels confident stating the request was approved.”

Referenda are very difficult to win under any circumstances. But with the referendum scheduled for the vote this November when there will be little or nothing else on the ballot for most communities, turnout for the voucher issue is going to be the one and only thing that matters.

The unions have their money, their network, and their members. And $3 million can help a lot of bodies turn out.

Voucher supporters are working overtime to make sure they top the union turnout, but every voucher supporter (and at least one friend wouldn’t hurt) will have to make it to the polls this November to give the union a run for its money. Otherwise, the first universal voucher program to pass in the U.S. won’t be the first to be implemented.

Sockin’ it to Honduras

A constant refrain from Democrats in Congress is that the Bush administration has been lax about enforcing the terms of U.S. trade agreements. Such a conclusion reveals a true naivete about trade diplomacy. The U.S. Trade Representative maintains ongoing dialogues with our trade partners during which many trade irritants are addressed and resolved without need of resort to the stick.

But Congress wants to see more of the stick, and more of the stick it shall see. Apparently our poor, but industrious Honduran neighbors have been shipping too many socks stateside. U.S. imports of cotton, wool, and man-made fiber socks from Honduras rose from 10.9 million dozen pairs in 2005 to 15.2 million dozen pairs in 2006, an increase of nearly 50 percent. In 2007 through June, imports from Honduras are up about 60 percent from the same period in 2006.

Under the terms of the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), the U.S. government can impose special safeguards in the form of new a tariff if a textile or apparel product:

“is being imported into the United States in such increased quantities, in absolute terms or relative to the domestic market for that article, and under such conditions as to cause serious damage, or actual threat thereof, to a domestic industry producing an article that is like, or directly competitive with, the imported article.”

The Committee for the Implementation of the Textile Agreements (CITA), an agency within the Commerce Department, initiated proceedings for such a safeguard last week. If it makes an affirmative finding, duties of 13.5 percent will be imposed later in the year.

Despite the surge in sock imports from Honduras, the country still accounts for only about 4 percent of U.S. consumption. How can such a miniscule presence account for “serious damage” or even the threat thereof to the domestic industry?

The safeguard rule is a farce, and its application to a country which depends heavily on its few manufacturing industries, and where two-thirds of the citizens live in poverty, explains a lot about why international regard for
America is in decline.

Czech Republic Joins the Flat Tax Club

Following up on Marian’s earlier post, it’s time to cue up the unofficial theme song of the flat tax revolution and review one of the first English-language news reports about the Czech Republic becoming the 20th jurisdiction to adopt a low-rate flat tax. The Prague Daily Monitor reports that the vote in the Chamber of Deputies clears the only real obstacle to a low-rate tax system:

The cabinet’s package of public-finance reforms passed the final vote in the Chamber of Deputies yesterday thanks to two unaffiliated opposition MPs who voted with the governing coalition. Starting next year, the legislation will gradually reduce corporate and personal-income taxes, cut social spending and introduce cash fees for health care. It still requires Senate approval and President Václav Klaus’s signature, but no resistance is expected from either. …

The reform package will gradually lower the corporate tax rate from today’s 24 percent to 21 percent next year, 20 percent in 2009 and 19 percent in 2010. The existing progressive taxation of personal income at 12 to 32 percent will be replaced by a flat tax of 15 percent in 2008 and 12.5% in 2009. The personal income tax will be calculated from super-gross income, including social and health insurance contributions paid by the employee and the employer. This means effective taxation will be 23.1 percent of gross income in 2008 and 19.4 percent in 2009.