The Best Defense against National Standards? Hearing about National Standards

I’ll admit it: When I go to an event intended to tout an idea I think is wrong, I get a little nervous. What if I hear an argument that’s so convincing it forces me to totally reevaluate my position? All my work will have been for naught! Well, I had just such worries as I headed toward the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “International Evidence about National Standards” conference yesterday.

I needn’t have worried. What I heard made me even more certain that imposing national academic standards – whether through state compacts, or worse, “incentivized” with federal dollars – is doomed to failure, just as I have been saying for years.

First, there’s likely political failure. Yes, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other high-profile education folks have recently been talking about the need for common standards – or at least the folly of having 50 different state standards – and many people think national standards would be great. But though people may love the idea of national standards, when it comes to actually creating and implementing them, love quickly turns to anger.

The second panel of the day, featuring Dane Linn of the National Governors Association and Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers – whose organizations are working together to create national standards – made this abundantly clear. While people at the conference might have agreed that national standards are peachy in theory, they couldn’t agree at all on who should write them. Indeed, they couldn’t even agree on their general shape: While Linn and Wilhoit stressed the need for higher and narrower standards, the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who moderated the panel, said that his group, the conference convener, could very well find itself opposing narrow standards that include too little.

If you can’t get people who really believe that we need national standards to agree on even their basic shape, why would anyone think that they could get a majority of Americans to agree on a single standard?

Of course, this was a conference supposedly about the international evidence concerning national standards. Even though the domestic political outlook for national standards appears poor, surely the evidence from abroad would conclusively demonstrate the need for national standards.

Hardly. If anything, the international evidence panel was the least persuasive part of the conference.

The hub of the panel was Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, who argued energetically against the illogical, weak standards of most American states – certainly a valid point. But he offered no compelling reasoning or evidence whatsoever to suggest that national standards would be any better than state standards. Indeed, moderator Ben Wildavsky knocked out Schmidt’s entire argument with just two punches, asking if there is empirical evidence that national standards produce better outcomes, and why Canada – which doesn’t have national standards – does very well on international comparisons. Schmidt’s answers: Almost every country participating in international exams has national standards, so it’s impossible to credit those standards with either good or bad outcomes, and Canadian provinces are kind of like countries.

If that’s the best evidence one can muster for national standards – essentially, no evidence – then there is absolutely zero good reason to support national standards.

Unfortunately, that really does seem to be all the evidence. At least, it’s all that was brought out yesterday. Which is why, though the conference didn’t force me to change my views, it did make me reach some very disheartening conclusions. Primarily, that many people support national standards simply because they are easier to conceptualize than multiple standards, and because they think that they – not people they dislike – will get to write the new, inescapable, standards for all.

DC Rally to Support School Choice For ALL, Not A Few

Today I witnessed hundreds of school children, parents and supporters rally in defense of the DC voucher program that Congress and the Obama administration recently put on death row.

They were there to tell these politicians and Mayor Fenty that the program is working for them.

Well, apparently President Obama has accepted the fact that the DC voucher program is working for these kids. The Washington Post reports, “President Obama will seek to extend the controversial D.C. school voucher program until all 1,716 participants have graduated from high school, although no new students will be accepted.”

But the parents and children demonstrating for the program weren’t just there for themselves. They were there to save this program for other children, like the 200 kids that were accepted into the voucher program and then summarily dismissed from it by Secretary of Education Duncan.

Last year during the presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama responded to a question about support for vouchers with his classic “pragmatist” pose; “If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Alright, let’s see if this experiment works.’ and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids.”

The Department of Education recently reported that the voucher program is already improving education, and it does so at a quarter of the cost.

If it’s working, why end it? Where is President Obama’s policy pragmatism now?

All I see from Obama is an attempt to kill a successful and popular program quietly instead of with screams, to leave no visible bodies on the ground for the press and voters to see.

That’s not pragmatism, that’s craven political expediency. And the scholarship families won’t stand for others being locked out of the chance they were able to seize for their children.

It’s time for President Obama to be honest, be a man, and support this program outright.

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The Cost of Flu Fears - and Our Ongoing Vulnerability

The ever-sensible Shaun Waterman has begun to tally the cost of overreaction to the fear outbreak inspired by the H1N1 flu strain. He reports in ISN Security Watch:

Even the precautions that you take against this kind of global flu pandemic could knock about 1.9 [or] 2 percent off global [economic production]. That’s about a trillion dollars,” according to journalist Martin Walker, who cited World Bank figures from a study last year.

The Economist reported last week that the crisis in Mexico was costing Mexico City’s service and retail industries $55m a day - not because of the handful of deaths but because of people’s reactions. And that was even before the national suspension of non-essential public activities called for this week by the authorities there, which was expected to double that cost.

Waterman also cites my joke about moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location in future crises - not for his protection or government continuity, but to keep him away from the media.

It’s comedic wrapping on a substantive point: As long as people look to government leaders in times of crises, leaders have a responsibility to communicate carefully, according to a plan, and with message discipline. If they don’t, the damage can be very high.

Even if all Americans knew to dismiss the words of the Vice President as if he’s a “Crazy Uncle Joe” - and they don’t - foreign tourists certainly don’t know that. Biden harmed the country simply by speaking off the cuff.

Here, an outbreak of flu appears to have caused billions of dollars in damage to the world economy. One billion lost to the U.S. economy is about 145 deaths (using the current $6.9 million valuation for a human life). When overreactions restrict economic activity, that reduces wealth and thus health and longevity.

Now, imagine what might happen if the United States encountered a novel, directed threat - some kind of attack that inspires widespread concern. Will Vice President Biden and officials from a half-dozen agencies rush forth with personal observations and speculation? The results could be devastating, especially to a country that is already suffering economically.

People die from poor situation management, and it makes Americans worse off. Political leaders should not get a free pass for failing to communicate well just because it’s hard to do.

The Obama Administration should learn from its many errors in handling the rather benign H1N1 flu situation. It should train up for communicating in the event of a real emergency. If the Obama Administration fails to soothe nerves in the event of some future terrorist attack, that will be a clear failure of leadership.

Mortgage ‘Safe Harbor’ Anything But Safe

After the Senate’s rejection last week of allowing bankruptcy judges to re-write mortgage contracts, the so called “cramdown” provisions, it was starting to look as if the Senate cared about respecting private contracts. Sadly, such concern has been short-lived.

Tucked away in the mortgage bill is a provision that gives servicers of mortgages, that is, the entities that collect payments and perform modifications on behalf of the actual investors in mortgages, a “safe harbor” from any litigation by investors if the servicer chooses to follow the interests of the borrower or the government, rather than fulfilling their fiduciary duty to the investors.

Supporters of the safe harbor claim that too many foreclosures have taken place due to contractual restrictions on the ability of servicers to modify mortgages in a manner that would allow borrowers to stay in their homes. Most pooling and servicing agreements allow mortgage modifications without the investors’ approval if the modification increases the net present value of the mortgage. However, if the mortgage modification resulted in a loss to the investor, over what they would recover in a foreclosure, then they are not allowed under current contracts. The safe harbor intends to fix this “problem” by allowing the servicer to impose additional losses on investors, as long as that servicer follows President Obama’s foreclosure plan.

Allowing parties to a contract to ignore their contractual obligations as long as they sign-on to presidential initiatives is a dangerous precedent, and one that will ultimately raise the cost of entering into and enforcing contracts.

As these costs will have to be borne by someone, it is likely in the future that these efforts at undermining contracts in our credit markets will result in higher interest rates for all borrowers.

An attempt was made by Senator Corker to modify this provision, restoring some protections for basic contract rights. Rather than taking the opportunity to reduce the damage done to contracts from this provision, the Senate rejected Senator Corker’s amendment by a rather large margin.

After the President’s recent attacks on minority debt-holders in Chrysler, the President’s support for mortgage cramdown, and now the Senate moving on the so-called “safe harbor” provisions, it is becoming increasing clear that investors themselves will soon be in need of a safe harbor from Washington.

Pakistan Troops Pour into Swat Valley

The Associated Press reports that Pakistani troops have taken the fight to militants in the Swat valley, ending a three month truce between the government and Taliban forces.

As I argued in the Washington Times almost a year ago, Pakistani government peace deals with militants have a tendency to collapse. Thus, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the latest “Shariah for peace deal” in Swat already begin to fray.

With this in mind, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must keep in mind the constraints Pakistani leaders are operating under. After 9/11, Pakistan was caught in an unenviable and contradictory position: the need to ally openly with the United States and the desire to discreetly preserve their militant assets as a hedge to Indian influence.

For example, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who heads Pakistan’s Islamist political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, led large anti-US, anti-Muaharraf, and pro-Taliban rallies in major Pakistani cities after the U.S. began bombing Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan. JUI and other influential Islamist organizations fiercely criticized Musharraf and the military for aligning with the United States and Pervez Musharraf himself was condemned within Pakistan for aligning with America in the war on terror. This dynamic has not gone away.

As I argue here, Pakistan’s six-decade rivalry with India is the biggest impediment to success in Afghanistan. It’s an open secret that elements of Pakistan’s military-dominated national intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), assist the powerful jihadist insurgency U.S. and NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan; Pakistan’s objective is to blunt the rising influence of their rapidly growing nemesis, India, which strongly supports Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime. Thus far, the United States has been unable to encourage Pakistan to ignore its traditional rival and ultimately, Pakistan’s civilian leaders and defense planners must determine if insurgents or India poses a greater threat.

Unfortunately, aerial drone strikes and other stop-gap measures do little to address the strategic drift between Washington and Islamabad. Unless President Obama can reassure hawks within Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus that India no longer poses an existential threat to their country (a promise impossible to guarantee) then the U.S.-NATO stalemate in Afghanistan will persist.