Archives: 06/2008

So Much, Yet So Little

Depending on where you live, you might have seen a story in your local paper on a new report finding that test scores have improved under the No Child Left Behind Act, implying — but not outright saying — that NCLB is working.

So why would getting this news depend on where you live? Because the report looked primarily at state tests, and only about 28 states had sufficiently consistent data to do meaningful score analyses. The other 22 had changed their testing in so substantial a way since NCLB’s passage that not even three years of consistent results could be strung together. Which is the biggest non-finding finding of the report: NCLB has instigated so much test engineering — often to make assessments easier — that nearly half of all states have no useful long-term data. And don’t automatically assume that the other 28 haven’t changed things: the report itself notes that they could have made questions easier or harder, changed relative weights of questions, and made other, more subtle changes to their tests.

There are other problems with the study that make it impossible to credit score increases to NCLB, most of which the report is upfront about but news stories rarely feature: There’s no “control group” unaffected by NCLB against whom to compare students “treated” by the law, no ability to tease out the effects of NCLB versus other reforms, etc. The most obvious problem, though, is that in large part because of NCLB, lots of states have testing systems incapable of providing the consistent, long-term results that federal policymakers promised the law itself would deliver.

FISA Face-saving

Since the new FISA bill was announced last week, Democratic leaders have been desperately trying to spin the legislation as a hard-won compromise rather than a capitulation. Time has an article on the FISA bill that’s a classic of the genre:

A compromise deal to extend the federal government’s domestic spying powers, passed by the House on Friday and expected to sail through the Senate next week, has drawn attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. The right is unhappy at concessions made to protect civil liberties; the left is furious that the Democrats allowed the domestic spying powers to be extended in any form.

There’s just one problem with this framing of the issue: outside of the Democratic leadership and a few elite journalists, no one believes it. Conservatives sure don’t. If you look at what actual conservatives are writing about the deal, you’ll find most of them crowing in victory. National Review’s Ramesh Ponuru, for example, says “It sure looks like [House Democrats] got rolled.” National Review’s Andy McCarthy calls the deal “the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances.” Coverage of the announcement on Human Events quoted no outraged conservatives. Paul at Power Line calls it “a decent FISA deal that’s likely to pass.” John McCormack at the Weekly Standard gives a thumbs up, as does Michelle Malkin.

And then there are the Republicans in Congress. Virtually every Republican in the House voted for the bill (compared with fewer than half the Democrats), and Kit Bond said that “I think the White House got a better deal than they even had hoped to get.”

In short, I’m hard-pressed to find even one person on “the right” who is opposing the bill. Virtually every civil liberties advocate opposes the legislation; virtually every partisan for executive power is happy with it. That is not a compromise. The deal was an unqualified victory for the White House, and everyone except the Democratic leadership knows it.

The article also suggests that Pelosi capitulated because “Democrats still trail on national security, and that could hurt them in Congress.” It seems to me that this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the politics of national security issues. Democrats are perceived as weak on national defense largely because they’ve failed to articulate a clear position on the issue and stick to it. This spring, they staked out the principled (and in my view, correct) position in favor of judicial oversight and against retroactive immunity and got some good press for it. Now, they’re backing off from that view. Were they wrong back in March, or are they unwilling to stand up for their convictions now? Either way, the performance doesn’t inspire confidence in their judgment.

The article rather badly mischaracterizes the immunity provisions of the legislation:

Under Administration proposals, the telecoms would have received full retroactive immunity from lawsuits brought by civil libertarians alleging they violated the Fourth Amendment by complying with Administration requests to conduct wiretaps following 9/11. In negotiations with Pelosi’s office, the telecoms offered a compromise: Let a judge decide if the letters they received from the Administration asking for their help show that the government was really after terrorist suspects and not innocent Americans.

If the legislation passes, the judge won’t decide if the administration was “really after terrorist suspects.” The judge will simply determined whether the telecom companies received a letter from the executive branch stating that the programs were legal. And we already know that the telecom companies received such a letter, because it says so in a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee. There is therefore absolutely no doubt that if the legislation passes, the lawsuits will be dismissed. The changes to the immunity provision were a face-saving exercise, not a substantive compromise.

Blind Faith and FISA

Over at Ars Technica, I cover Sen. Chris Dodd’s plans to filibuster the FISA bill that is now under consideration in the Senate. Given that the Senate already overrode Dodd’s filibuster and passed legislation that undermines civil liberties back in February, his effort this time is a long shot. But he’s giving it all he’s got. Dodd gave a really excellent speech on the Senate floor in opposition to the legislation. He makes a lot of great points, but this passage was my favorite:

This bill does not say, “Trust the American people; Trust the courts and judges and juries to come to just decisions.” Retroactive immunity sends a message that is crystal clear: “Trust me.”

And that message comes straight from the mouth of this President. “Trust me.”

What is the basis for that trust? Classified documents, we are told, that prove the case for retroactive immunity beyond a shadow of a doubt. But we’re not allowed to see them! I’ve served in this body for 27 years, and I’m not allowed to see them! Neither are a majority of my colleagues. We are all left in the dark. I cannot speak for my colleagues—but I would never take “trust me” for an answer, not even in the best of times. Not even from a President on Mount Rushmore.

I can’t put it better than this: “ ‘Trust me’ government is government that asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties.”

Those words were not spoken by someone who took our nation’s security lightly, Mr. President. They were spoken by Ronald Reagan – in 1980. They are every bit as true today, even if times of threat and fear blur our concept of transcendent values. Even if those who would exploit those times urge us to save our skins at any cost.

We once had a Republican president who understood that blind faith in the president was unpatriotic. Not only do few Republicans understand that today, but it seems a lot of Democrats have forgotten it too.

U.S. Sugar Program Costs Another $1.75 Billion

The state of Florida announced yesterday that it will pay $1.75 billion to buy out the nation’s largest sugar producer and 300 square miles of land it owns north of the environmentally sensitive Florida Everglades. Although most news stories ignored the connection, the deal is yet another cost Americans continue to pay for our misguided agricultural programs.

The company selling the land, United States Sugar, has for decades benefited from a federal program that guarantees a minimum price for United States Sugar’s crop through a system of loan guarantees and strict import quotas. This means American families and sugar-consuming industries are typically paying two to three times the world price for sugar.

The sugar program also imposes damage on the environment, which motivated yesterday’s announcement. Like other farm programs, the sugar program encourages over-production. In the case of United States Sugar, that means the extraction of fresh water that would otherwise flow naturally into the Everglades, and the over-application of fertilizers that artificially raise the phosphorous content of the runoff, causing a sharp decline in periphyton, such as algae, that supports bird and other animal life in the Everglades. [For more about the environmental damage caused by U.S. farm programs, see my 2005 article published by the Property and Environment Research Center.]

In large part because of the damage caused by subsidized domestic sugar producers, Congress allocated $8 billion in 2000 for cleaning up the Everglades. Florida’s purchase of United States Sugar was just the latest installment in an ongoing clean-up operation.

Of course, Congress could have avoided much of this mess years ago by repealing the sugar program. If Americans had been free to buy sugar at world prices, our domestic sugar industry would have been smaller and more efficient with a much smaller environmental footprint. Converting the sugar-cane fields to more environmentally friendly uses would have been much less expensive because the annual subsidies would not have been capitalized into the value of the land.

When the Democrats took power in Congress in 2007, they pledged themselves to be in favor of reform, fiscal responsibility, and protection of the environment. Yet the new farm bill that Democrats voting overwhelmingly in favor of last month, and that their likely presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed, strikes out on all three counts.

Odd Phenomena

Jeffrey Goldberg looks in Matt Yglesias’ and my direction and declares that “it’s an odd phenomenon” that people care about the fact that Goldberg and James Kirchick are making false claims about what the president of Iran said. False claims that are leading people in the United States to want to go to war with Iran.

You know what else is an odd phenomenon? That Jeffrey Goldberg still hasn’t addressed the fact that he published a number of articles before the Iraq war falsely linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda that helped get 4,000 Americans killed, drive America’s reputation into the ditch, flush $600,000,000,000 down the toilet and enhance Iran’s position in the region. That’s odd.

Conflicting Data? What Conflicting Data?

The public school advocacy group Center on Education Policy released a new report today, titled “Has Student Achievement Increased Since 2002?” Its answer is “yes,” based on relatively worthless high-stakes state-level testing data and on the more esteemed National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). For reasons known only to the report’s authors, they make no use of the available U.S. trend data from either the PISA or the PIRLS international tests (though the CEP study mentions PISA results for a single point in time, it ignores the changes in that test’s scores over time.)

As it happens, U.S. scores have declined on both PISA and PIRLS in every subject and at both grades tested since they were first administered in 2000/2001. In the PISA mathematics and science tests, the declines are large enough to be statistically significant, that is: we can be confident (and disappointed) that they reveal real deterioration in U.S. student performance. In mathematics, our score has dropped from 493 to 474, causing us to slip from 18th out of 27 participating countries down to 25th out of 30 countries. In science, our score fell from 499 to 489, dropping us from 14th out of 27 countries to 21st out of 30 countries.

It is reckless and misleading to form judgments about trends in U.S. student performance without taking into account the declines on these respected international tests. And, as Neal McCluskey and I pointed out last year, the improving trends that exist on some NAEP tests predate the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, and have in some cases actually slowed since that law’s passage.

It is this rather discouraging reality that should guide policymakers in the coming year, as they debate the future of NCLB.

Family Security Matters: REAL ID = National ID

A month ago, I wrote here and in a TechKnowledge article about the telling imagery that a company called L-1 Identity Solutions had used in some promotional materials. The cover of their REAL ID brochure featured an attractive woman’s face with her driver license data superimposed over it, along with her name, address, height, eye color, place of birth, political affiliation, and her race. This is where the national ID system advanced by the REAL ID Act leads.

Here’s another example. A group called Family Security Matters has reprinted on its site a blog post supporting the $80 million in grant money that the Department of Homeland Security recently announced, seeking to prop up the REAL ID Act. (I’ve written about it here and here.)

What’s interesting is not that a small advocacy group should support REAL ID, but the image they chose to illustrate their thinking: a man holding his “National Identity Card,” his fingerprint and iris images printed on it, and presumably programmed into it.

Were there ever any doubt that REAL ID was a national identity system and a step toward cradle-to-grave, government-mandated biometric tracking, Family Security Matters has helped clear that up.