States’ rights: a slippery slope back to mediocrity?

In the midst of the waiver
news
last week—which set many a reformer’s teeth on edge—came a few events
and reports that provide some interesting ringtones for the current debate over
the federal role in education.

Let
the dollars follow the child
was the proposal from the Hoover Institution’s
Koret Task Force, which also makes a compelling case for the federal government’s
“central role” in our nation’s education future. Let
the feds butt out
was the message delivered by Rep. John Kline, Republican
chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, as he explained two
ESEA rewrite bills at an American Enterprise event. And Unconstitional!
was the Pioneer Institute’s conclusion about the federal government’s support
of the Common Core:

Actions taken by the Obama Administration signal an important
policy shift in the nation’s education policy, with the Department placing the
nation on the road to federal direction over elementary and secondary school
curriculum and instruction.
One wonders whether
“states’ rights” are being invoked to cover up the very inequities that NCLB was determined to remedy.

I hesitate to invoke Civil War analogies here, but there are
some troubling signs in the current dust-up that make one wonder whether
“states’ rights” are being invoked to cover up the very inequities—the “soft
bigotry of low expectations”—that No Child Left Behind was determined to remedy.
In a press release from the
Education Committee’s Republicans we learn that they “have long recognized the
progress state and local officials have had implementing innovative reforms
that hold schools accountable for student achievement, support excellent
teachers, and provide greater choices for parents.”

Oh really?

Mike also engaged the question in his ‘whither education’ post last Friday:

We bow to the mantra of “local control” yet, in fact, nearly
every major decision affecting the education of our children is shaped (and
mis-shaped) by at least four separate levels of governance: Washington, the state capitol, the local
district, and the individual school building itself.

Too many cooks in the classroom, says Mike.

Rep. Kline’s two bills—the Student
Success Act
and  Encouraging
Innovation and Effective Teachers Act
—seem designed to kick the feds out of
the classroom. In a summary of the Student Success Act, for instance, the House
Republicans highlight the fact that the bill

  • Eliminates
    AYP and replaces it with state-determined accountability systems, thereby
    returning authority for measuring student performance to states and school
    districts.
  • Eliminates
    federally mandated actions and interventions currently required of poor
    performing schools, giving states and districts maximum flexibility to
    develop appropriate school improvement strategies and rewards for their
    schools.
  • Repeals
    federal “Highly Qualified Teacher” requirements.

But it is unclear how the two bills will actually encourage education
excellence or accountability. There will be plenty more on these bills (and I
recommend watching the AEI
event
and looking at a bill
summary
and fact
sheet
), but the Koret report seems to strike a more sensible balance here
by defining governance roles. As explained by Task Force member Grover
Whitehurst in his Education
Next
summary, the Hoover
report would agree with Kline that the federal government’s involvement in K-12
education has grown, with “only modest impact on student achievement.” But
rather than concluding, as Kline does, that this means that the feds should
abandon oversight, Koret believes that the feds retaining “rigorous
accountability is preferable to returning control of public schooling to local
public-school monopolies and states, which will fall into old habits all too
quickly.”

This is a huge difference of approach, one that recognizes
the federal duty to guarantee individual rights, including educational rights. The
feds have “a legitimate role,” Whitehurst argues. And this report identifies
four federal education functions:

  • Creating and disseminating information on school
    performance in each classroom and program effectiveness, including information
    on individual student performance;
  • Enforcing civil rights laws;
  • Providing financial support to high-need
    students;
  • Enhancing competition among providers.

The genius of Koret is its faith in federalism, which, when
properly understood, has achieved much. When we understand that part of the
federal role is to encourage competition, we can more properly steer our
governance systems to align with roles envisioned by the Founders.

Whitehurst argues that “government services are most
efficiently delivered if provided closest to the taxpayers or consumers
receiving them,” but only if the competition is truly free. For the past 15
years, he explains the feds have “intervene[d] from above” in order to “correct
the strong tendency of local school bureaucracies to cater more to adult than
student interests.”

Koret, says Whitehurst, suggests that there is a more
efficient way of correcting these local oppressions: by letting federal
education dollars follow the student. The formula would be “weighted to compensate
for the extra costs associated with high-need students” so that parents would
have “real choice.” In other words, you not only limit the federal role, you
cut out the middle men—the state, local, and school board bureaucrats. It would
surely satisfy Mike’s problem of too many cooks in the education kitchen.

“Parents must have the widest possible choice of schools for
their children and be armed with good information on the performance of
schools,” says Whitehurst.

Does this sound overreaching?  Unconstitutional?  Impractical? If anything, it sounds too good
to be true. But so was America
when first conceived.

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