Is a Democratic Congress good for school reform?

This article first appeared (in slightly different form) on National Review Online.

We’ve previously recorded our doubts about congressional Republicans when it comes to education reform. They don’t have much of an agenda, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan co-opted much of what they had. They’re mostly MIA on the whole issue. To the extent that they’re focusing at all, they hint at atavistic yearnings for states’ rights and local control, despite ample evidence that those don’t often yield good results for kids.

The problem is that the prospect of the Democrats retaining control of Congress is at least as unpromising and arguably worse.

In the great education-policy schism of the Democratic Party, while President Obama and Secretary Duncan generally come down on the reform side, their fellow Democrats in Congress generally land on the establishment side. The administration wants resources and reform; the Hill wants to take the money and run.

Sure, the 111th Congress gave us Race to the Top, but that was a drop in the bucket compared to the $100 billion “stimulus” fund of which it was part. And just a few months ago, Democratic lawmakers put federal taxpayers on the hook for another $23 billion in “edujobs”—without demanding a scintilla of positive change from American schools in return. The motto of leaders like Tom Harkin (D, Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, could be “Spend more, reform less”—hardly a winning formula for our beleaguered education system and the kids stuck in it.

The problem runs deeper than the sheer fiscal irresponsibility of raiding the Treasury. This sort of federal spending actually harms our education system by encouraging state and local officials to avoid the difficult decisions needed to put their schools back on a sustainable path. We’ve witnessed an education spending bubble over the past two decades, as first a booming economy and then soaring housing values poured tons of dollars into public-school budgets. That money got spent (and then some) by shrinking classes, adding specialists, beefing up salaries, and promising lavish health-care and pension benefits. But now that bubble has burst. Federal support can keep the consequences at bay for a while, but not forever.

Worse, as we learned this week from the indispensable Mike Antonucci, the education workforce actually grew 2.3 percent during the Great Recession. That’s right: While the private sector slashed jobs, trimmed benefits, renegotiated contracts, cut pay, and sometimes declared bankruptcy, the education part of the public sector actually fattened. It’s as if the Democrats have created a privileged class of Americans—remember the Soviet nomenklatura?—consisting of public employees who are insulated from the perils and pains to which ordinary citizens are exposed.

And while spending John Q. Taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars to hire more educators and grow the public sector, reform-averse Democrats on Capitol Hill have also been quashing needed changes in our schools. They’re chronically hostile to the Teacher Incentive Fund, willing to dump charter-school dollars in favor of jobs bills, death on D.C. vouchers and Reading First, allergic to another round of Race to the Top, and broadly opposed to competitive grants while favoring the formula-driven distribution of ever more money.

The few congressional Democrats with reform proclivities—one must at least acknowledge the large presence of Rep. George Miller (D, Calif.) —can’t resist the temptation to try to regulate everything into submission from Washington. A decade ago, Miller pushed for the ill-fated Highly Qualified Teachers provision of No Child Left Behind (which now threatens to kill off Teach For America in his own state). But lessons of federal overreaching are never learned, and so he’s back with a new initiative: protecting student athletes from the damaging effects of concussions. (Yes, concussions.) A recently introduced bill would, according to Miller’s Education and Labor Committee:

Make sports safer for student athletes by asking school districts to implement a concussion safety and management plan. The plan that school districts develop must educate students, parents, and school personnel about concussion safety and how to support students recovering from concussions. It would require schools to post information about concussions on school grounds and on school websites. It would also support “when in doubt, sit it out” policies for students suspected of sustaining a concussion during a school-sponsored athletic activity.

Now Uncle Sam is to function as a sports trainer? In addition to school principal and student lender? Is the federal taxpayer going to pay for all this? Do Miller and his colleagues ever say to themselves, “You know, maybe this isn’t something that needs Uncle Sam’s involvement. Maybe it isn’t something he can do well.”

Even as Republicans murmur about getting Uncle Sam completely out of K–12 education—and thus out of the education-reform business—Democrats are torn between featherbedding their union pals and micromanaging the nation’s schools from thousands of miles away. Not a very appealing choice.

We can, however, glimpse a path through this thicket. Call us naïve, but it goes like this: Come to some agreement at a national (though not federal-government) level about what students should know and be able to do, at least in a few key subjects. (Think “Common Core.”) Develop strong assessments linked to such standards, and make sure schools’ and students’ performance on those assessments are fully transparent. Then empower states to figure out how to get their students up to the standards and how to intervene in schools that aren’t making progress. Get the feds out of their nitpicking ways: Kill the Highly Qualified Teachers mandate. Kill Adequate Yearly Progress. Kill No Child Left Behind’s “cascade of sanctions.” Provide grants to induce good behavior if you like (à la Race to the Top and the Teacher Incentive Fund), but mostly get off the backs of America’s schools. Push for reform, but with a clear-eyed view of what can be achieved from Washington. Make sure all parents know how their kids’ schools are doing—and how everybody else’s schools are doing—on a clear, common metric. But don’t try to run the schools from Capitol Hill or 400 Maryland Avenue.

 

We call that “Reform Realism.” And it’s not so far from what the Obama administration has proposed in its Elementary and Secondary Education Act blueprint. If the Republicans take the House and the Democrats keep the Senate, this blueprint could serve as the perfect tool for triangulation—and would be a pretty decent policy outcome, too. Certainly better than what either party on Capitol Hill is offering today.

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