Flexibility Inaction

Hard to remember now, but a big bone of contention during No Child Left Behind’s passage was how much flexibility to give to states and school districts. Basically, conservatives said give ’em loads of it, New Democrats said give them flexibility about how to spend money but not about where to spend it (e.g. don’t loosen rules about targeting federal dollars to poor kids) and liberal Dems said don’t give ’em any.

Now, five years later, the data are coming in and it turns out that the compromise flexibility that ultimately was put in the law has led to…drum roll…very little.* Probably a couple of reasons for this. Institutional and cultural norms run deep so just saying “go be flexible” doesn’t really produce much. And, the theory of action behind more flexibility assumes that people aren’t doing the “right” thing because they can’t. In fact, they might not know how. The British learned these lessons, too, with some Blair initiatives.

In addition, regulations and rules are complicated and there is often misunderstanding about what one can or can’t do anyway. One of the most interesting findings from the original Ed Flex pilot during the Clinton Administration was that about two in five waivers requested were for things that were already allowed under existing law.

So, all else equal I think that the “tight-loose” question matters and balancing flexibility with accountability is something policymakers must wrestle with. But, it’s more complicated than just saying ‘go forth and be flexible…’*

The hard-core flexibility types will argue that these initiatives were not a real test of the flexibility theory of action because they didn’t loosen the requirements on everything or give states enough latitude. But, so little has happened with what flexibility there was that it casts doubt on this.

Update: Title I Monitor on the same issue.

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