Good for Texas. Good for America?

Deep in the heart of Texas is where some education-policy
lessons might best stay.

Texas statehouse

Photo by Jim Bowen

But they tend not to. Rick Perry’s seemingly imminent entry
into the 2012 GOP race suggests that, for the second time in less than a dozen
years, we could very well see an ardent effort by a Texas governor to make the
federal role in education conform to his own preconceptions and to lessons
drawn from his experience in Austin.

That’s what happened in 2001 when Governor George W. Bush
carried with him from Texas the essential elements of policy and practice that
(after much fiddling by Congress) became the No Child Left Behind Act.

And that’s what could happen again in 2013 should Perry win
the Oval Office and endeavor there to magnify and replay the conclusions he has
reached about education during his dozen years running the Lone Star State.

Besides (and partly due to) its enormity, Texas is a proud,
sometimes arrogant, and seriously self-absorbed place. One need only stand
under the immense dome of the state capitol—taller than the one in
Washington—and gaze at the six flags depicted in the terrazzo floor. All have
flown over Texas. One senses that its current affiliation with the United
States is a sort of dalliance that could one day end.

So it’s no surprise that Texas governors can be a bit cocky.
Bush took for granted that the standards-based education reforms that had
worked pretty well back home, particularly for poor and black and brown kids
(even the RAND Corporation attested to that back
in 2000
), would work for America. They entailed standards in core subjects,
plenty of testing, reams of (disaggregated) data, lots of transparency
regarding school outcomes, and accountability measures tied to those outcomes.

And they brought gains (primarily at the bottom) that the
state’s leaders and educators had cause to be proud of.

There was no reason they shouldn’t work in other states,
too, Bush reasoned, and of course there was precedent for Uncle Sam nudging
states in that direction—initiatives like the Clinton-era “Goals 2000” and “Improving
America’s Schools
” legislation.

If Perry brings only a Texas chainsaw
to the task, it could turn out that projecting another set of Lone Star
precedents upon all of American education would be one more mistake.


With the benefit of hindsight, however, we see that Bush
didn’t fully appreciate how much the tools available to the federal government
differ from those wielded by state leaders. That’s the main reason NCLB has
been a…well, choose your own term, anywhere from “damaging flop” to “less than
complete success.” (I’m somewhere in the middle, myself.)

Washington simply has no capacity to compel states and
districts to follow the Texas model—or any other model. Yes, it can make them
go through the motions, submit plans, and report data. It can dole out and
(rarely) withhold money. But it cannot make anyone set rigorous standards,
select good tests, establish reasonable “cut scores” (part of the Texas formula
involved slowly raising those
benchmarks), or successfully intervene in failing schools or districts. (As for
making them supply decent school choices or competent teachers, don’t even
bother going there.)

NCLB tried. It tried harder than any federal education law
in history. Its shortcomings are due in large measure to its architects’
failure to distinguish between what a state government in a place like Austin
can make happen in K-12 education and what Uncle Sam can bring about.

Governor Perry heads into his presidential quest with a
different blind-spot, in some ways the obverse of Bush’s. He is best known in
education (and several other domains) for his adamant refusal to let Texas be
pushed or pulled at all by Washington or other forces outside the Lone Star
borders. That’s why he vehemently refused to seek Race to the Top funding.
(Texas’s share could have been $700 million.) About RTTT he said: “We would be foolish and irresponsible to
place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special
interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.”

But Uncle Sam isn’t the only
education scarecrow in Perry’s wheat field. Consider the Common Core standards
for reading and math. Several months before the draft product of that
initiative was even ready for inspection, he declared that “I will not commit
Texas taxpayers to…the adoption of unproven, cost-prohibitive national
standards and tests.”

Texas map

Photo by velkr0

Along with Virginia, Texas is now
the most prominent refusenik in the Common Core effort. Which is its right and
not necessarily a bad decision, for the state’s own standards are solid, at
least in English and (recently) in math and it has spent serious money
implementing them. (Having a strong economy helps a bunch—and made it easier to
shun RTTT.) In recent years, however, school outcomes in the Lone Star State
have flattened. Texas no longer ranks among the strongest states in boosting
minority-student scores (or white scores either, for that matter.) Its overall
performance (gauged by NAEP) resembles treadmill running.

One must ask, too, whether
Perry’s Texas experience—plus his towering self-assuredness—would blind him to
the droopy reality of more typical states and the prodding and political cover
they might need from outside if they’re ever to pull up their education socks.

Texas is anomalous in so many
ways: a vast, growing, and relatively prosperous place with a sophisticated
state education apparatus and not much by way of labor unions. Perry is plainly
a “states’ rights” Republican, and that may be what Americans want in the Oval
Office. (Some may wonder, however, why a guy who seems to abhor just about
everything about Washington would want to move here!) But will pulling the plug
on federal efforts to reform education—most likely by putting the money on a
stump and letting states do whatever they like with it—benefit the other
forty-nine? How about gravely ill jurisdictions such as Ohio and Michigan where
Uncle Sam might help reformers duke it out with entrenched unions? Or seriously
poor places like Mississippi and Alabama, which may need some outside bucks to
leverage change? Or educationally inert states like Nebraska and South Dakota
that may just need a kick in the pants?

Yes, one can pledge allegiance to the tenth amendment
and declare that such challenges are the states’ problems to solve if they want
to and can. But is that the best thing in the twenty-first century for a big
modern country that is being outpaced in education (and economic growth) by
nations around the planet? And is it the best thing for 55 million kids, many
of whom today face dim futures that could be brightened by a better education?
Few deny that today’s federal role in K-12 schooling needs major surgery. But
with a deft scalpel, not a cleaver. If Perry brings only a Texas chainsaw to
the task, it could turn out that projecting another set of Lone Star precedents
upon all of American education would be one more mistake.

This piece originally appeared in the National Review Online and on Fordham's Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.