In Stanford Magazine Jerry Bracey and Terry Moe debate No Child Left Behind. It’s unsatisfying. Moe’s right about incentives, you don’t have to be some sort of Skinnerian freak to see that, but his analysis of power is too deterministic for my taste. Many of the positions the teachers’ unions take are part of the problem, but they’re far from the only problem facing public schools and to some extent teachers’ unions thrive on the dominant culture in public education rather than necessarily cause it exclusively.
For his part, Bracey makes an interesting point about people believing the worst about public schools. In some cases I think this is right and there is a tendency to uncritically accept bad news. But, that’s far from an absolute rule. For instance, isn’t the intense resistance to acknowledging that even “great” suburban schools are as a rule under-educating minority students a powerful piece of evidence to the contrary? Again, culture looms large. But then Bracey gets into tin foil hat territory with lines like this:
I have never believed that [NCLB] is the idealistic, well-intentioned but poorly executed program that many claim it to be. NCLB aims to shrink the public sector, transfer large sums of public money to the private sector, weaken or destroy two Democratic power bases—the teachers unions—and provide vouchers to let students attend private schools at public expense. The original proposal, and each subsequent presidential budget, provided for vouchers, but Congress has thus far removed these provisions.
Moe’s lede graf dryly illustrates how absurd this premise is a general matter. But “large sums?” Seems to me, based on the numbers, that the lion’s share of the money has gone to the public sector (fine with me by the way) and that overall the reform has increased not decreased public sector activity and authority around education. Even in light of recent budget cuts, billions in new federal spending have gone to public schools since the law was passed and while private tutoring companies and testing companies have received a share of that, it’s a small share. The more subtle problem isn’t hysterics about the private sector, it’s that most of this new money, leaving aside high profile initiatives like Reading First, has gone down the same old pipes and consequently leveraged very little reform.