The road paved with good intentions

The Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings has
generally done good work since its founding in 1992. Under Russ Whitehurst’s
leadership, it has recently stepped up its productivity and many of the resulting
reports and symposia have been first-rate, notably including a series of
concise task-force reports on such topics as school
and the role of value-added
analysis in teacher evaluation

Would that this were also true of its latest task-force
product: “Charter
Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education

On the upside, this report is surely well-timed. Charter
schools and the charter movement need many a repair, the current programs of
federal support for them have sundry archaic features, and the hoped-for
upcoming reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB is the obvious place for a makeover.

Yet, despite themselves, this task force of eminent
scholars, charter-friendly policy wonks, and thoughtful analysts fell into a
familiar trap: the illusion that any number of seemingly worthy repairs,
recalibrations, and reforms in a complex policy domain can (and should) be
brought about via a slew of adjustments—all finely tuned, of course—in federal
regulations, conditions, incentives, funding formulae, and reporting

This is wishful thinking—to put it kindly—and especially
dismaying when it emanates from a group that includes smart economists,
statisticians, and recent alumni of the very government that they now ask to
jump through complicated hoops. Frankly, they should know better. These folks
have seen up close what government can and cannot do. And yet they now drink
the Kool-aid—and want you to sup it with them.

Surely, it’s tasty stuff. The Brown Center Task Force sets
forth twenty recommendations for changes in federal charter-school policy and,
while some of them are a bit wonky (designed more to benefit researchers in the
long run than needy kids in the short term), all are sound and would contribute
to a stronger and more effective charter-school enterprise in the United

If, that is, they were not just enacted and funded but also
faithfully and accurately implemented—without glitches, political pushback,
bureaucratic resistance, or unintended consequences—by every level of
government and every institution that is involved with this enterprise.

Here are a few specimens:

  • Under “data collection and use,” the task force
    asks Uncle Sam to make federal charter-school aid “contingent upon charter
    schools being subject to lottery rules that require the design and
    implementation of lotteries by entities that are qualified to carry out the
    task, operate with clearly documented procedures, and are independent of the
    charter schools in which the lotteries are being conducted.” Surely a worthy
    thought, but now try to picture the federal regulations that spell out
    qualifications for lottery-conducting entities and a system by which to police
    compliance with those regulations. (Another worthy-in-concept-but-impossible-to-orchestrate-from-Washington
    proposal calls for “stratified” lotteries designed to foster pupil diversity
    and geographic balance.)
  • Under “information to support choice,” the task
    force wants districts publicly to report school-specific data on such matters
    as truancy rates, availability of “enrichment programs” and “success of
    students at the next level of education.” Parents, analysts, and policymakers
    would indeed benefit from such information but to get it—and make sure that
    it’s accurate, timely and comparable—somebody would have to make (and monitor
    and enforce) rules and protocols for “truancy” (what if a kid cuts out of
    school at noon?), for “enrichment programs” (does cheerleading qualify?), and
    for longitudinal tracking of youngsters after they leave their schools.
  • Under “facilities,” the task force urges
    Washington to “provide incentives to districts to allow charters to take
    advantage of surplus district facilities, for example, by giving districts that
    do so priority preference points in federal discretionary grant competitions….”
    Another appealing idea, but putting it into practice would alter the
    decision-making processes of a bunch of non-charter programs—and doing this
    fairly would mean making rules for what exactly constitutes a “surplus”
    facility and precisely what it means to “allow charters to take advantage” of
    such facilities. (Does charging one dollar below market rate qualify?)

And so the report takes us through seventeen more good
ideas, every one of them burdened with enormous implications for regulation,
compliance, and monitoring.

A few weeks back, we adults assured doubting children that
Santa Claus is “real.” But we also reminded them that, if they ask for too many
gifts, they may well end up with coal in their stockings—or nothing at all.
That advice applies to public policy, too. The Brown Center wish list is
directed to the selfsame federal government, let us recall, that cannot
from salmonella
in your supermarket eggs, the same government that is
clumsily patting you down at airports, the same government that has enormous
difficulty keeping its diplomatic cables secret and its incoming parcels

That’s also the government that has already tried multiple
times to move the mountain of American public education by applying leverage
and incentives in Washington. Remember NCLB? Not only did it not produce more
than a soupcon of the desired result, it also fed a big bad backlash. Why do
smart folks persist in believing that it will work better with their ideas? How much can we
realistically and reasonably expect Uncle Sam to do and do well?

Not, alas, as much as the Brown Center task force wants it
to do. These recommendations won’t be enacted (surely not in their current
form) and, if they were, they wouldn’t be implemented and, even if they were implemented, they wouldn’t be done
well or consistently. Instead of Santa Claus and sugar plums, this initiative
would yield a mantle hung with coal-filled stockings, and all sorts of other
undesirable and unintended consequences. It would end up being deemed another
failure of government—and maybe of the charter-school concept, too.

Carry this line of thinking into more politically sensitive
domains and the fallout could be truly damaging. Imagine, for example, a
parallel Brookings Task Force taking up the question of how federal policy
might further the implementation of the new Common Core academic standards,
leading to twenty recommendations in that vein for the next round of ESEA. Then
picture the Tea Party response. It’s hard to imagine a faster formula for strangling
the standards in their cradle.

And so a plea to Brookings and others: Please rein in
your expectations for what Uncle Sam can do, which is but a few of the twenty
items on the Brown Center list and others like it. Most of the rest would be
properly directed to states, to charter-school authorizers, to philanthropists,
to school districts—but not to Washington. Remember what misdirected policy
guidance will bring to your stocking: coal—or nothing at all.

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