More NCLB…Is Milton Friedman Smiling Or Is Bill Taylor?

Over at the TPM Cafe Century Foundation’s Greg Anrig worriedly weighs-in about No Child Left Behind pegged to Michael Winerip’s typically misleading article the other day. Anrig makes two basic points, (1) that NCLB is a conservative victory because it’s eroding support for public schools by making people think the public schools are failing and (2) that Winerip demonstrates the injustice of all this through his NY school example.

Let’s quickly take the second issue first. The contention that a law is unjust to schools is simply not borne out by the Winerip column but does demonstrate how Winerip’s perpetual motion machine of NCLB disinformation is causing a lot of confusion even among smart people who ought to know better. First, the bureaucratic problems encountered by the principal and described by Winerip were driven by state and city officials, not federal ones. Second, even accepting Winerip’s contention, should schools not be held accountable for special needs students and English-language learners? And besides, it seems a little hysterical to say that a bureaucratic hassle (and an episodic one at that, this does not happen everywhere) or giving parents the right to transfer to a different public school, a right that none of them in this case exercised anyway, is a consequence worthy of indicting the law as unjust.

Anrig’s notion that NCLB is a gift Milton Friedman could never have even hoped for is similarly over-the-top. First, Eduwonk interviewed Friedman for a book project recently and he’s no fan of NCLB. But more to the point, we live in a country where only about half the minority students finish high school on time, where poor and minority students routinely trail their peers on state and national assessments (by four grade levels in high school), and where poor and minority youngsters are systemically given less in the way of resources like good teachers or state dollars (pdf). Those aren’t conservative statistics or liberal ones, they’re just stubborn facts. And, those students do go to school somewhere, and it’s not just in our big cities. So while Anrig and the NEA fret that the law has forced states to say that 25 percent of public schools can do better than they’re doing now for those children, considering the numbers above, a reasonable person might ask, against that backdrop only 25 percent need to do better?

The obvious dual-client issue in education policy notwithstanding (meaning you have to have policy for the schools because they serve the students), a reasonable person might also ask why there is so much concern about the schools and so little about the students in them. Here is one plausible explanation: Politics. Anrig praises “attentive” liberals for opposing NCLB when it was passed and fingers the DLC for its support while ignoring liberal groups like the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, The Education Trust, and others that supported and still support the law. He then cites UVA’s Jim Ryan, who is a voucher guy, as a voice of reason. This illustrates the incoherence of the left on the public education issue because presumably Anrig isn’t a voucher guy. Here’s the thing: Guys on the left like Ryan and Ted Sizer, for instance, have an answer to the problems cited above. Though a different answer, so does the center-left coalition that supported NCLB. And the conservatives have one, too. The real debate right now is about these various theories of action. But the left is too often AWOL from this debate because there are a bunch of folks without much interesting to say about how to change things because they fear criticizing the public schools as an institution, are part of the institution itself, or see everything through a left-right prism. Unfortunately, rather than supporting an important liberal institution like public education this posture is actually debilitating for it over time, leaves Democratic politicians in a political bind, and it’s not very good for the kids either. In fact, it’s pretty illiberal really.

Update: The hard-to-please Russo wasn’t impressed either.

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