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 choice 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 requirements.
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 States.
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 assure freedom 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 bomb-free.
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.
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