More Mike

Mike Petrilli’s road to Paigeascus experience continues as he assaults the Ed Trust over No Child Left Behind. Mike’s surely right that there are provisions in No Child that don’t work as well as they must and that the flexibility for accountability isn’t as robust as it could be. Below is a passage from a paper Rick Hess and I wrote for a conference a few months ago that deals with those issues. But, Mike is quickly adopting, at least rhetorically, much of the local control fetish that while popular among conservatives can’t account for how we got where we are today in terms of the very high quality variance that exists in our education system. The Trust may like regulation from Washington, but they’re hardly all wrong that in many cases it’s needed.

Here’s what Rick and I wrote:

“In principle, the NCLB bargain was intended to be tight on results and loose on means. In practice, this failed to materialize for four primary reasons. As a general matter, federal laws are plagued by vague and imprecise language that either gives federal bureaucrats wide latitude in interpretation or ultimately falls to the courts to interpret. For instance, the Supreme Court is gearing up for its third special education case in as many years this session because of ongoing disagreements about the notoriously vaguely worded Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In education policymaking this problem is especially pronounced because vaguely written statutes give not only the federal government but also state and local policymakers the opportunity to make various decisions and add various regulations.

More specifically, there is paternity for every regulation in federal policy. Many provisions or programs that seemingly in conflict with the law’s overall theory of action are in the legislation because of a patron somewhere on Capitol Hill. This is why, for instance, rules regulating teacher credentials, found their way into such a place of prominence in a piece of legislation ostensibly focusing on outputs. It also explains numerous small programs and set-asides as well as a range of restrictions that accompany various NCLB initiatives.

The Bush administration’s approach to NCLB exacerbated these liabilities. Rather than send fully developed legislative proposals to Capitol Hill, the President’s team opted to put forward a “blueprint” for ESEA reauthorization that amounted, in total, to less than 30 pages of general principles. As a result, rather than codifying a new direction for federal policy, the administration’s approach opened the door for all manner of horse trading and encouraged Congress to graft the new proposals onto existing policy. Essentially, the President sent Congress a signal that if his priorities were taken care of, they could figure out the rest of the law themselves. Hardly an invitation for a streamlined piece of legislation.

Finally, despite the common sense emphasis around focusing on results rather than process championed by the President as well as moderate Democrats in the House and Senate, disbursing substantial sums of federal money (even tiny Rhode Island receives more than $84 million annually from No Child Left Behind) inevitably requires some rules about process. In other words, while policies can certainly be more results-based, there will always be some degree of regulatory process because of the magnitude of the public interest. A skeptic can reasonably argue that NCLB was poorly designed if the aim was to substantially shift the accountability equation away from process and toward results; at the same time, observers should remember that many of the statute’s rules and regulations were probably unavoidable given the fiduciary responsibilities required when billions of dollars of federal aid are in play.

In the end, NCLB was a bipartisan triumph, in the best and worst sense of that term. It took proposals put forth by Bush and Miller, by Republicans and Democrats, by the Clinton administration and by Washington activists and policy entrepreneurs, mixed them with the various constraints and political considerations, and stirred them into a hearty stew. NCLB passed with 87 votes in the Senate and 381 in the House.

The downside, however, is a hodgepodge of policies frequently prescriptive where they should be lax and vague where they should be precise. So, for instance, despite NCLB’s demand that states ensure that all teachers meet a definition of “highly qualified” and a statutory definition of these criteria, states were allowed to define alternative standards for veteran teachers. Not surprisingly, these standards generally range from weak to non-existent. Similarly, despite the law’s emphasis on real consequences for persistently low-performing schools, the law leaves the consequences, including implementation of tutoring and public school choice provisions, up to school districts. That’s the policy equivalent of leaving the foxes in charge of the hen house.

Of course, some this confusion is an inevitable byproduct of the challenges of the federal government seeking to influence the behavior of states, school districts, and schools while not disadvantaging the children they serve. It is a challenging tightrope act that plays out in other policy arenas, such as welfare reform, too. However, to be sure, some of the confusion stems from less theoretical and more base considerations, namely that politicians often choose to split the difference on thorny provisions rather than make hard choices and consequently introduced confusion, opportunities for gaming, and contradictory incentives into the law.”

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