Fickle on federalism

“[This plan] will fundamentally change
the federal role in education. We will move from being a compliance
monitor to being an engine for innovation.”

--Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 17, 2010, before the House Education and Labor Committee

“In coming weeks and months…we will be
announcing a number of compliance reviews to ensure that all students
have equal access to educational opportunities.”

--Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 8, 2010, at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama

*****

Arne Duncan’s schizophrenia
on federalism, in full display in recent weeks, is hardly an isolated
case; you might say this condition is endemic to Washington right now.
Education reformers on both sides of the aisle are torn between pressing
their preferred policies from the shores of the Potomac and
acknowledging that Uncle Sam is too far removed from the realities of
schools, communities, and classrooms to do much good without doing lots
of harm. But rather than a sickness, this represents a healthy trend,
for it means that the policy elite are actually considering whether to shrink the federal role.

This would be quite a reversal. Since Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on
Poverty and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the feds have
been piling mandate upon mandate, creating new rights for students,
responsibilities for schools, and expectations for school systems and
states that they cannot possibly meet. Perhaps No Child Left Behind will
be seen as the apex of this federal activism, pushed, in a
Nixon-goes-to-China way, by a conservative Republican president. With
its prescriptions for measuring school quality, its Soviet-style
timelines, and its one-size-fits-all “cascade of sanctions,” it
reflected the hubristic notion that a small federal agency could move
the mountain that is American public education. It didn’t work, and it
fed a predictable backlash.

Thus Arne Duncan’s call, just this week, to stop “micromanaging” schools from Washington. When it comes to his blueprint
for the reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), he
mostly seems to mean it. Most significantly, his proposal would return
authority over state accountability systems back to…the states. (Just as
amazingly, liberal lion George Miller indicated at the hearing
yesterday that he supports this move.)

All but the very worst schools would be freed from federal sanctions.
There would be no more “Adequate Yearly Progress” tracking (unless
states opt to do something like that), no more schools “in need of
improvement,” no more “corrective action” or “restructuring” or “public
school choice” or “supplemental services.” For 95 percent of America’s
public schools, the federal role would switch from “accountability” to
“transparency”: All would still be required to take annual state tests
and publicize the results, but no top-down consequences will flow from
them. (The best of these schools would, however, be eligible for federal
rewards.)

As you might expect, not everyone is thrilled with this idea. Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust told the Wall Street Journal
that “you can’t say we’re going to get all kids college ready and
ignore 85 percent of the schools…If you’re a school that is in the
bottom 25 percent, you could just be in the bottom 25 percent and just
sit there.” In a similar vein, University of California law professor
(and former White House aide) Christopher Edley complained to the Times,
“I’m alarmed by the frequent references to ‘incentives,’ and the
apparent intention to reduce the federal role in forcing compliance.”
And the Washington Post editorial page is concerned that the focus on the best and worst schools “could allow problems to go uncorrected in the vast middle.”

If these analysts are worried that the Administration’s proposal
won’t fix all that ails America’s 100,000 schools, they are right. It
won’t. How refreshing that we might begin to acknowledge that nothing
from Washington can, could, or will.

But the Administration’s enthusiasm for federal restraint only goes
so far. In the very same ESEA “blueprint,” Secretary Duncan would
mandate state-level definitions of “highly-effective teachers”;
state-level efforts to equalize the distribution of effective teachers;
and district-level teacher evaluation systems. Most significantly, he
would require districts to equalize funding between their high-poverty
and more affluent schools. So even as he eases up on school
accountability, he would double down on teacher accountability.

All of these teacher-related ideas have at least some merit and
reformers are rightfully pushing for their adoption at the state and
local levels. But is Duncan opposed to “micromanagement” from the banks
of the Potomac or not? (And that’s before even considering last week’s
triple-down civil rights announcement, which, with its paeans to “enforcement” and “compliance” and “disparate impact,” felt like the 1970s all over again.)

The Republicans aren’t immune to this form of schizophrenia. While
their natural instincts are to support federalism and local
control--instincts lately heightened by the rise of the Tea Party--they
also like to promote school choice from on high. Hence their major
conundrum: whether to push back against the Administration’s plans to
scrap NCLB’s public-school choice and free tutoring provisions, or let
these die in the name of “local control.”

Just take a look at the press release
put out yesterday by the House education committee’s ranking GOP
member, John Kline. In one breath he intoned that Congress needs to “do
more than simply cast aside the NCLB name and expand its requirements. I
believe we need to have a meaningful conversation about the appropriate
federal role in our schools.” But a few paragraphs later he condemned
the Administration’s blueprint for “backing away from these critical
parental options,” which, he said, “is a tremendous disappointment, and
one that could leave more than half a million students without the
educational lifelines they depend on.”

So let’s ask Representative Kline and his fellow Republicans the same question: Are you for federal micromanagement, or not?

Nobody knows yet where fickle policymakers will land on federalism. But today’s politics might push the federal role in a more limited direction. A recent survey
found that 56 percent of Americans believe that the federal government
“has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to
the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” The conservative Politics Daily columnist Pete Wehner recently considered
the implications of this finding. “We are witnessing (for liberals) a
bitter irony in the making: Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are undermining the modern liberal
project, which is predicated on an almost limitless faith in the federal
government. They are creating the conditions for an epic
counter-reaction.”

If this counter-reaction washes away the worst of NCLB’s excesses, so much the better.

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