Education reform and conservative confusion

A few of the comments on this blog have hinted that I’m trying to spearhead either a libertarian or a right-wing educational crusade. Nope. When it comes to reforming education, I fall more into the “we’re all right and we’re all wrong” camp. I guess that’s some variation on “a plague on both their houses,” but more sympathetic.

I just read an article in National Affairs entitled “A Federal Education Agenda.” It coulda’, shoulda’ been subtitled: “Why Conservatives are so Confused”. And yes, no surprise, one of the authors is American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess. If it sometimes seems that I’m on a one woman crusade to bring his analysis to a new audience, well, guilty as charged.

I am going to post excerpts from this article in at least a couple of posts, to keep from running too long. I hope to return to the aftermath of the Chicago Teacher’s strike, by the way, but I’m still waiting for the chalk dust to settle and more thoughtful analyses to emerge. They’re coming, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, back to Rick Hess and company. Here’s how the article opens

The conservative approach to education policy is nothing if not confused. Conservatives cheer top-down federal standards and accountability while demanding bottom-up parental choice. They call for eliminating the federal Department of Education, but support spending on major federal education programs like Title I aid for disadvantaged students, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and student loans. They treat restoring “local control” as a panacea, while neglecting the fact that “local control” strengthens the grip of teachers’ unions. They grumble about the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, but forget that the legislation passed with solid conservative support. They have applauded components of the Obama administration’s education policies, even as those policies have taken federal overreach to new levels.

This incoherence is bad for conservatives and bad for the country. Lacking a sound, focused approach to federal education policy, conservatives have largely ceded the work of reform to progressives, who embrace sweeping national solutions and put unwarranted faith in the wisdom of federal bureaucracies.

So far many conservatives are probably cheering, especially those of you who are fighting the common core standards. But Hess sounds a warning note as well:

The conservative record on education is thus not a story to be proud of. To recount that history is not to counsel despair, however. America’s schools require dramatic improvement, and progressive dreams of “fixing” schools from Washington have shown little promise of delivering. Conservatives thus have an essential role to play when it comes to reforming American education. What they need is a better sense of what that role ought to be — informed by the mistakes of Race to the Top, NCLB, and decades of empty promises.

To start, it is essential to abandon unhelpful rhetoric about shutting down the Department of Education or “getting the federal government out of education.” The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in schooling — and it always has. From the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside land for the purpose of building and funding schools, through Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 investment in math and science instruction after the launch of Sputnik, the federal government has recognized a compelling national interest in the quality of American education.

The truth is that not even outspoken champions of local control really want Uncle Sam completely removed from schooling. Republicans — including the Tea Party class of 2010 — routinely support maintaining or increasing federal funds for Title I, special education, and federal student loans. For instance, in 2011, when it looked like Congress might reduce federal funding for special education, Republicans intervened en masse to help stop the cuts. Washington congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, vice chair of the House Republican Conference, introduced an amendment that restored $557 million in special-education funding; House Republicans backed the amendment, co-sponsored by education-committee chairman John Kline, 232 to 5. Similarly, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 — the budget deal passed at the last minute to avoid a government shutdown — actually increased funding for Title I and special education. Republicans supported the bill 147 to 86. Given that Title I and special-education programs account for the bulk of federal K-12 spending, Republican claims that the federal government should simply get out of schooling ring hollow.

It is just as well for the GOP that such promises amount to little more than empty rhetoric: If Republicans were serious, voters would react poorly. In the mid-1990s, when House Republicans proposed eliminating the Department of Education, polls consistently suggested that 70% to 80% of voters opposed the effort. This election cycle, polling finds that 74% of respondents oppose eliminating the Department of Education, with even 56% of self-described conservatives opposed.

It seems clear that the Department of Education isn’t going anywhere. The real opportunity lies in reassessing what it is that the federal government should do and how we ought to properly circumscribe its role. This requires understanding a few important facts about the relationship between Washington and America’s schools.

And what should that relationship be? Stay tuned.

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