False Fordham Hopes

For a moment yesterday, I thought that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, arguably the nation’s foremost neo-con education think tank, had gotten the message that the federal government can’t create education policies that work for parents and children rather than politicians and bureaucrats. Sure, I hadn’t had much success when I tried to make this point to Fordham vice president Mike Petrilli for a solid week last April, but maybe something had changed.

Why’d I think that? Yesterday, Petrilli had a surprising op-ed on National Review Online denouncing the No Child Left Behind Act, which set off my fleeting hopes. Indeed, Petrilli suggested that getting the feds out of education completely might actually be a better option than sticking with NCLB:

Into the “Don’t Do it At All” bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive “cascade of sanctions” for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen.
 

Could it be that Petrilli had come to realize that federal policies are doomed because the bureaucrats and policymakers that Washington promises to hold “accountable” have all the lobbying power, while parents have little to none? Is it possible that he went even further than that, realizing that the key to innovation and progress in education is the same as the key to innovation and progress in all other endeavors: Letting individuals freely pursue their own interests – in the case of education, through universal school choice – rather than government pulling their strings through rules, regulations, and standards?

Alas, no. The very day I read Petrilli’s NRO piece, I attended a New America Foundation event on Senator Chris Dodd’s (D-CT) new proposal to create national science and math standards. There I saw the Thomas B. Fordham Institute listed right above the National Education Association on a roster of organizations endorsing Dodd’s idea, and Petrilli himself spoke in favor of the proposal.

But I really didn’t need to go to the panel discussion to see that my hopes were unfounded. Petrilli’s piece itself reveals that he and Fordham still haven’t gotten the message. For one thing, it fails to explain that the only way to make schools really accountable is to enable all parents to remove their kids – and their money – from schools that don’t work and put them into schools that do. Moreover, at the same time Petrilli acknowledges that NCLB has been a failure – just like all federal involvement before it – he states that among many “powerful” ideals underlying the law that he still supports is the notion “that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role.”

What a disappointment.