Party like it's 1994
Scott Brown’s remarkable victory in Tuesday’s special election has turned American politics upside-down, and is already reshaping debates around health care, energy, and spending. But might it also foreshadow a major shift on federal education reform?
Up until Monday night, it seemed likely that Uncle Sam’s role in education would continue to grow larger ad infinitum. With states desperate for cash, the feds capable of borrowing it from China, and the apparent success of the Race to the Top in pushing a broad reform agenda, a new era of federal dominance in education appeared to be upon us. It seemed quite possible that within a few years the federal share of education spending could go up to 20 or even 30 percent, and lots of strings would come along with it.
This was the “new normal” in education policy, though it followed the very old Golden Rule. (“He who has the gold makes the rules.”)
And there’s still a good chance that the federal role in education will continue to grow unabated. States and districts are going to remain broke for the foreseeable future (especially as the full impact of lower housing values is felt in our property-tax reliant school system), and the public isn’t keen on seeing class sizes rise or their favorite teachers laid-off. That leaves the feds as the funder of last resort.
But the odds of an ever-expanding federal role are a whole lot lower today than they were last week. That’s because Brown’s election could be the leading edge of a widespread backlash to big government, and in particular big, costly federal government. And federal education spending--and the prescriptive, top-down Washington-knows-best rules that tend to come along with it--could become a big fat target for wanna-be Representatives and Senators looking to ride taxpayer anger into office.
Remember that in the aftermath of the 1994 Republican take-over of Congress, there was a lot of talk about abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and reining in federal spending. And sure enough, spending increases during the Clinton years were anemic compared to those during the Bush 43 era, and miniscule compared to the stimulus largesse. If 2010 is 1994 all over again, and the GOP takes over Congress again this fall, a similar dynamic could play out, with Republicans attacking a heavy-handed federal role and an ambitious Democratic administration placed on the defensive. This could also spell trouble for the nascent “common standards” effort, if it runs up against anti-Washington headwinds. (Remember the “voluntary national testing” fracas of the 90s?)
To be sure, education could be immune from the larger revolt against big government. Even Newt Gingrich, architect of the Contract with America, lauds the Administration’s forceful actions on education--supportive, as they are, after all, of longtime Republican ideas, like school choice and merit pay. And Brown himself is an unlikely candidate to lead the charge against federal education spending and activism; his campaign platform on schools was smack in the middle of the centrist mainstream, with support for charter schools, testing, and even Boston’s voluntary school desegregation program.
But smart money would say that the new New Normal will lead the Obama Administration to clip its wings across all policy areas, including education. Look for its ESEA reauthorization proposal, in particular, to take pains to demonstrate a renewed faith in states and local communities to fix their own schools and to reduce Washington micromanagement.
Which would be an extremely positive development. The next phase of education reform doesn’t need a federal law that’s even more prescriptive, more punitive, and more far-reaching than the current one. It needs three things instead. First: some humility that Washington isn’t great at making change happen, especially via sticks. Second: transparency--data about school performance that we can trust. And third: incentives (i.e., competitive grants) for schools/districts/innovators to continue experimenting and to scale up successes.
Let the states take the wheel again when it comes to deciding when interventions in failing schools are necessary and how to do them. Let schools take the wheel again when it comes to deciding how they should be staffed, what instructional practices to use, etc. And let Uncle Sam stay focused on offering incentive grants for promising innovations--and for producing and disseminating solid research and evaluation reports.
Editorial boards and sundry reformers will scream that this amounts to a “rollback” of NCLB. Let them scream--and remind them that the same old-same old won’t work in the new New Normal.
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