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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