November 17, 2008 8:59PM

In Education, the Big‐​Gov Battle Is On!

Last week, I heartily embraced the possibility, as voiced by the Fordham Foundation’s Mike Petrilli, that congressional Republicans might soon renounce their ill-fated foray into federal education control. The impetus for Petrilli’s conclusion was a Wall Street Journal letter from Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), in which Hoekstra rebuked Republicans for abandoning principle and embracing “compassionate conservatism,” the big-government philosophy that brought us the No Child Left Behind Act.

Fights over federal education policy could very well be the battle for the GOP’s soul in microcosm, and big-government types have quickly pushed back against Hoekstra.

  • On November 15, the WSJ ran a letter by former Vermonters for Better Education Executive Director Libby Sternberg, who blamed Hoekstra and others like him for undermining NCLB and, as a result, “making it very difficult for grassroots education reform and school-choice activists to push forward the principles of choice and accountability embodied in” the law.
  • Today, Petrilli piles on and pitches for — you guessed it — national standards! (National standards that somehow aren’t “federal,” as you’ll see in the Washington Times piece Petrilli links to, but are nonetheless adopted as a result of federal “incentives.” See the illogic with which I have to deal?)
  • Not to be outdone, Petrilli’s boss, Chester E. “Checker” Finn, joins the fray, employing one of the uglier tactics of NCLB apologists: Finn implies that Hoekstra and his ilk don’t care about the poor. “I don’t doubt that his view of education is pleasing to the party’s ‘base,’” Finn writes. “But if it prevails, members of that base may cast the only Republican votes in future elections—and all those poor, minority and inner-city kids who live in districts other than Hoekstra’s will continue to be trapped in the miserable schools that NCLB, however clumsily, sought to transform (or extricate them from).”

Clearly, the big-government types want to tussle. Well let's get it on!

Let’s start with Finn. For one thing, nothing is more irritating than the argument that if you oppose NCLB you just don’t care about “poor, minority and inner-city” kids. Poor kids might not be your first or even primary concern — you might care about all children, or all taxpayers, or even your own kids first and foremost — but to suggest that you just don’t care about poor children because you oppose NCLB? That’s little more than cheap rhetoric, and Finn gives not an iota of support for it.

Of course, there’s good reason to conclude that NCLB doesn’t help poor and minority kids. It certainly makes a lot of promises to them and spends a lot of money in their names, but there is no even close to conclusive evidence that NCLB is helping them, much less transforming rotten schools or extricating them from educational wastelands. Look at achievement gaps. Yes, the black-white gap has generally been shrinking since 2002, but if you look at either the reading or mathematics National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, you’ll generally see slightly faster gap closure before than after NCLB. Ditto achievement for low-income kids. Of course, the data is a mixed bag, and there are tons of important variables in education in addition to NCLB that render neither gains nor losses conclusively attributable to the law. If anything, though, what evidence we have indicates that what we were doing before NCLB was working a bit better than what we have now.

It’s fairly easy to see why NCLB has caused no great academic upswing: it offers more deception than sunshine. Full proficiency? Maybe, but only if the "proficiency" bar is set really low. “School choice” for extrication from broken schools? Fat chance. Real “accountability” for federal dollars? Well, there have been lots of federal dollars spent, but from what we know about NCLB proficiency and choice, they have delivered little by way of accountability.

How about the permanent political exile Finn hints the GOP will face if it gives up on such stellar performers as NCLB and gets back to liberty-centric, small-government principles? You know, the principles that propelled Ronald Reagan to office in 1980 and congressional Republicans to power in 1994? Surely the electorate loves Washington solving all of its problems, especially with NCLB-esque intrusions?

Again, a little evidence would be nice, but Finn offers diddly. In contrast, Ramesh Ponnuru recently reviewed a host of polling results on whether people prefer more or less government, and less still seems to be winning.

Ah, but don’t people favor big-government education? That depends. Obama was a clear winner over John McCain on education, so at the very least it’s possible that the more education programs you propose, the more you’re thought to be “good” on the subject. It also appears that when you ask people's opinion of “federal legislation” that “requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not,” a little more than half of the population will like it. Surely these things indicate that the GOP has been on the winning education track the past eight years?

Or maybe not. Call your federal, standards-demanding legislation by its proper name — the No Child Left Behind Act — and you get just 50-percent support for it. Then, remove your leading description and ask about NCLB by its name alone, and suddenly just 41 percent of respondents report liking the law. So measures like NCLB are actually far from proven political winners, while big-government in general is still — subject, of course, to ever-changing world and national events — a likely political loser. 

Sorry again, Mr. Finn.

As for Sternberg’s assertion that opposition to NCLB by people like Hoekstra has somehow hurt “school-choice activists”? I’ve never seen anything showing that conservative and libertarian opposition to NCLB has damaged school-choice efforts. Indeed, much more plausible is that the “standards and accountability” crowd has hurt the school-choice movement, arguing that in the final analysis we need our political betters to tell our kids what to learn, and forcing libertarians and small-government conservatives to expend far too many valuable resources refuting their faulty claims

Ultimately, here is the problem, and big-government conservatives had better snap out of their Bush-era trance and see it: Top-down reforms like NCLB, no matter how well intentioned, will never transform the status quo. The people employed by the system have the greatest incentives and ability to control policy, and what’s in their best interest is to keep standards low and funding high. That’s why “proficiency” means so little. That’s why NCLB “choice” means so little. That’s why Reading First— beloved by the Fordham Foundation—is on its way out. And that’s why it’s time for big-government conservatives to give up their Utopian dreams of bending the system to their will, accept that Washington will only make education worse, and get back to fully supporting the only reform that offers true hope: universal school choice.