Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

In light of the evidence, why has the 21st CCLC likely been spared in the Senate? Almost certainly because it sounds nice – who doesn’t like after-school enrichment? – and because the vast majority of voters don’t have time to research it and discover that the federal government’s own evaluations have found it wanting. And, of course, people getting money through the program likely lobbied hard to keep it. In other words, we’re almost certainly looking at classic concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: For voters and taxpayers, the 21st CCLC is but one among umpteen thousand government programs they could never keep track of and which, on an individual taxpayer basis, costs little. In contrast, for politicians sending an “I care” message, and for those getting money or services through the program, it means much more so they fight to keep it.

This is a major reason it is essential to keep the goal of removing Washington from education squarely in view at all times. Fail to eliminate it completely – to make going to Washington for education cash nearly impossible – and bad programs will be kept, many that seem gone will grow back, and new ones will emerge.

If you don’t want to get stung by the jellyfish, you can’t just cut a few tentacles.