January 20, 2010 4:33PM

Are We Mad about SAFRA?

This morning I mused about whether yesterday's Massachusetts miracle would curb the drive to have the feds take over K-12 education. In particular, I wondered if the president's new proposal to extend the "Race to the Top" -- and as part of that directly connect local districts to the feds --will meet an almost immediate demise as legislators dive frantically to avoid the backlash against ever-expanding federal power.

My hope is that it will, but I'm not especially sanguine. The prospects for stemming the centralization tide are probably better today than they were yesterday, but federal education initiatives tend to have a fair amount of bipartisan support, especially if they throw money at public schools -- which liberals like -- as well as things like charter schools, merit pay, and "standards" that conservatives support. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if President Obama, facing hopeless prospects on health care, cap and trade, and other anger-igniters, were to propose reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act as one big Race to the Top. Incorporating both big bucks and things conservatives endorse, it would stand a pretty good chance of garnering some Republican support. And that would allow Obama to say he has learned his lesson about working with both parties while letting legislators head back home declaring that they'd done something "for the children."

In sum, I'm not sure whether Scott Brown's election is actually a good or bad thing at the K-12 level. I am much more optimistic about higher education, specifically the effect Brown's victory will have on the odious Student Aid and Fiscal Responsbility Act, a piece of legislation that supporters say will save taxpayers money but that will almost certainly cost them dearly. The House passed SAFRA in September, but Senate action has been in a holding pattern while that body has been paralyzed by health care.

Why the optimism on SAFRA and not in K-12? Because Race to the Top is stealthy, involving relatively small amounts of money and ostensibly letting states and districts freely choose if they want to participate. Not so SAFRA, which if anything has been overly demonized as a federal takeover of the student-lending industry because it would cut "private" lenders out of massively subsidized federal-loan programs.

Of course, if the lenders are hugely subsidized they are hardly private, at least in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, the loudest argument against SAFRA -- which would consolidate some additional power at the federal level and spend like a drunken sailor -- is that it's a federal takeover. From a political standpoint that's huge. With Brown having successfully run on a platform primarily opposing big and ever-growing government, many one-time congressional supporters of SAFRA will no doubt have to think long and hard if they really, really want to bear the label of "federalizer."

My suspicion is that, given the new political environment, a great many will decide that they don't.