by guestblogger Andy Smarick
Eleven years ago I was a legislative assistant to a US Congressman, and K-12 was in my portfolio. NCLB was making its way through the House, and the congressman was leaning against. I took it upon myself to change his mind.
I gave him our state testing data showing enormous achievement gaps. This legislation, I argued, was social justice for disadvantaged kids. Standards, assessments, accountability, and transparency were not only reasonable but also necessary. We had to do something about failing schools. You have to vote for this legislation!
Ten years later I was Deputy Education Commissioner of New Jersey, and I was leading our effort to write a waiver to free our state from NCLB.
Were I interested in reputational self-protection, I’d take the easy way out and simply say that America learned a great deal over that decade; that I was right as a zealous 26-year old to agitate, and I was right as a wiser, more prudent 36-year old to retrench.
But that’s not how I feel. To this day, I’m deeply conflicted about the proper role of the federal government in our schools. As I alluded to yesterday, as a blogger, but more importantly, as a guy who’s done a good bit of education policy making and writing, I ought to have an answer. And I don’t.
NCLB did much more good than most people today are willing to admit. It advanced standards, assessments, accountability, and choice, and it elevated expectations and demanded results for our most underserved kids.
But its flaws are also manifest—the use of attainment instead of growth, HQT, the lack of nuance in labeling schools, the timid interventions for failure.
Add to this list the creed of my colleagues on the political right—one to which I am instinctively partial—that NCLB was a federal overreach. My conservative philosophy tells me that the feds should be light-touch with schools. States should have power, and DC-emanating, uniform dictates (whether in education or elsewhere) are typically a recipe for grand folly.
But somehow we seem to have forgotten that America actually has experience with a K-12 system of ascendant states and an enervated Uncle Sam. It’s called the pre-NCLB era…one where urban districts performed appallingly for decades, where suburban achievement gaps gaped, where choices for the disadvantaged were rare, where accountability was diluted.
But such meddlesome facts are now lost in the haze of history and histrionics. Today, it is easier to vehemently charge NCLB with being a domestic policy party crasher instead of what it actually was: an eagerly invited guest. And so we have what Michael Gerson derisively refers to as the “waiver revolution,” in which I—apparently as some sort of New Jersey Jacobin—participated, colluding in “the broad institutionalization of lowered expectations.”
The Obama Administration’s ESEA waivers were designed to ameliorate NCLB’s deficiencies. They put states back in the driver’s seat with labels, interventions, and more. The waivers also concede that Uncle Sam can only do so much in K-12. And the application’s designation of three small categories of schools (priority, focus, and reward) indicate that SEAs are limited as well, meaning local districts are really in charge. This all certainly pleases many of NCLB’s most strident critics.
I believe firmly that my colleagues and I in New Jersey—and likeminded friends in some other states—approached the waivers the right way. We were committed to high expectations, achievement, accountability, and flexibility. Our application reflects that.
But my experience over the last decade, particularly my time outside of the beltway, has taught me that for all of the passionate national talk about closing achievement gaps and expanding opportunity, this rhetoric, this set of beliefs, didn’t permeate the field as deeply as many believe. Cynics and doubters abound.
Seen in this light, the waivers, now given away like candy, open the door to not only outright mischief, but also the type of subtle pre-NCLB languidness that ill-served disadvantaged boys and girls. To be clear, I think strong governors and bold, reform-minded state chiefs will advance the interests of kids via waiver flexibility. But those conditions don’t exist everywhere. But kids do.
So what in the world am I to do? My conservative philosophy and my studied understanding of public policy generally tell me to trust states and locals and to recoil from a presumptuous, voracious federal government. So should I celebrate NCLB’s demise and embrace the waiver revolution?
But my ideology has to end at the water’s edge of kids’ futures. I can’t ignore history’s lesson that lots of vulnerable students suffered grievously, continuously, and with little notice prior to NCLB. I can’t ignore that some leaders have lower expectations for the disadvantaged, and that some organizations argue that we’ll never solve education until we solve poverty. And I can’t ignore that when these factors are combined with the dissipation of federal pressure via the waivers, that a probable consequence in some places is decreased urgency about the fortunes of needy kids, especially those in the vast body of “uncategorized” schools.
So I’m torn, unable, despite a decade of thinking, to imagine a reauthorized ESEA that gets the balance right. Wither my value as a blogger and policy guy.
As much as I’d like this to my own moving cri de coeur, because of the quadrennial, I’m compelled to send it through today’s presidential prism. And the view is startling.
Should Governor Romney be elected, he will have a daunting K-12 gauntlet to run. Because of the nation’s huge debt, conservative backlash to federal schools overreach, the growing unease over Common Core, the Obama Administration’s bent for nontrivial reform, and many other complicating variables, a President Romney will have to thread more needles than a seamstress.
How should he address overall spending levels, the proportion of federal education funds dedicated to formula-based programs, the growth of competitive grant programs, Obama initiatives like Race to the Top and i3, federal guidance on teacher evaluations, and much more?
But in the end, all of these are simply proxy wars of the larger ideological K-12 struggle of our time: What exactly is the right role for the federal government in our schools?
And during his first months in office, a President Romney will face the flashpoint that has me tied in knots: What in the world do we do with NCLB, and what do we make of these waivers?
As I figure it, if I’m to regain my blogger street cred, and if I’m going to be of any value as a conservative ed policy person, I have 34 days to make good. For the next few days at least, you can track my struggles and development here, where I’ll, among other things, discuss some of the proposals on the table.
PS: I’ve locked myself in the Eduwonk studios like Sandler, Buscemi, and Fraser in Airheads, so my blog license is secure for the time being. Stay tuned.