Beware Bipartisan School Reform

If everybody on the Hill is happy, Americans probably shouldn't be.

We are in for a season of grisly partisan bloodletting—or at least some pretty fierce jello wrestling—over health care, budgets, and pork, if the coverage of the opening days of the 112th Congress is any indication of things to come. But when it comes to education policy, politicians and pundits are inexplicably full of sunny optimism.

Patient zero in this epidemic of cheer is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this week expressing the hope that people on both sides of the aisle will “do something together for our children that will build America's future, strengthen our economy and reflect well on us all.”

Set off by Duncan, the rest of the political news pack followed with stories about how this year’s anticipated rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—re-christened No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001—is going to be totally bipartisan and awesome. But any touted bipartisan action by Congress should be regarded with suspicion—the more touting there is, the more suspicion is merited—and education reauthorization is no exception.

It’s true that Democrats and Republicans sound more alike than they ever have on education policy. Reform is no longer a dirty word for Democrats, for instance. And Republicans want to spend more on teachers, by and large. Duncan highlights one point of rhetorical unity in his op-ed: “On many issues, Democrats and Republicans agree, starting with the fact that no one likes how NCLB labels schools as failures.” The word failure is uncomfortable for the adults involved in education policy. In fact, it’s a word that rarely sneaks into politics at all. The fact that No Child Left Behind set things up so that a government venture of any kind would wind up being forced to label itself a failure is pretty remarkable.

But agreeing to stop using hurtful words in cases where schools “are making broad gains” won’t do a darned thing to improve messed up schools. If big chunks of a school population still can’t read or do math anywhere near grade level after years and years of second chances—the criteria to become a failing school under NCLB—that school actually is failing. Even if the scores were worse last year.

And agreement on how to talk about fixing schools is a far cry from actually fixing schools. To listen to politicians talk, everyone is up for more flexibility and more accountability, but when it comes to concrete proposals, the two sides are still miles apart. Even in his kumbaya op-ed, Duncan slips in mention of his opposition to “federally dictated tutoring or school-transfer options.” Though the jargon obscures what he’s talking about, it’s school choice. Those options are the heart of No Child Left Behind reforms. All the now-unfashionable monitoring and testing requirements instituted in that law were geared toward figuring out which kids deserve the backing of the feds when they’re ready to bail out of their sub-par schools and go looking for something better inside (or outside) the traditional public school system.

The underlying political dynamics don’t suggest that Congress is ripe for big bipartisan bear hugs, either. The newly Republican-dominated House isn’t going to like the idea of Obama taking credit for “fixing the schools” if a bill passes. And teachers unions remain a force to be reckoned with. They have had a rough year; nobody likes to be depicted as the anti-Superman in theaters nationwide. The National Education Association gave Democrats $2 million in the 2010 cycle, and the American Federation of Teachers gave $2.6 million (compared with a comical $8,000 to Republicans). They expect a return on that money, and the kind of returns they’re looking for are not bipartisan agreements about the virtues of transparency.

With both sides talking nice, but staking out clear territory, it's unlikely that education reauthorization will be a bipartisan love fest. Still, as Teach for America VP and ex-Mr. Michelle Rhee Kevin Huffman points out in U.S. News and World Report, “the relevant committee chairs and ranking members (Tom Harkin and Michael Enzi in the Senate, John Kline and George Miller in the House) are experienced pros” and known moderates. A bunch of high-ranking moderates in education slots simply means that there's a slightly increased chance something might wind up on the president’s desk. It tells us nothing about whether that something will be any good.

K-12 education in the United State is in a bad way. If education reauthorization goes smoothly, that will be a clear sign that no one decided it was worth it to rock the boat, even if everyone involved says that they are opposed to the status quo.

No matter what happens with education reauthorzation in this Congress, a fight over a controversial bill is unlikely to be a clear win for anyone. Education reform is tricky, and even the avid backers of testing and federally-madated choice agree that neither reform has proven to be the silver bullet reformers hoped for in 2001. The proposals on the table in 2011 are just as murky. Which means most legislators—moderate and bipartisan-inclined, or otherwise—will just want to make the issue go away. If they can find a solution that keeps the adults in Washington happy and doesn’t use up too much valuable time on the floors and cloakrooms of Congress, they’ll take it. That’s bipartisanism, and it isn’t the same thing as success.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Rich||

    “do something together for our children that will build America's future, strengthen our economy and reflect well on us all.”

    Arne, *that* is one nauseating statement.

  • ||

    Hey Arne, give us a break from the bumper sticker rhetoric.

  • ||

    If they had any sense or guts, the 112th Congress would dis-establish the Federal Department of Education and de-fund each and every "grant" to the states for education. More government in education = less education. Get government out of education and kids will get educated or not, as their parents desire. More of them will actually become educated without government than do now with it.

  • ||

    We at the government don't want to end federal education; it gives us tremendous control over our future. What government would not want to shape future voters, to teach them that we are good, worthy of trust, and safe to rely on for all forms of well being?

    By the way, everything we Feds do is bipartisan: http://youareproperty.blogspot.....-only.html

  • ||

    Jesus. Stop spending our money. We're going to collapse like a deck of cards if you don't stop now.

  • ||

    Just say NO to vouchers!

    I don't want my tax dollars funding Christian madrassas where students are inculcated into the some Bob Jones Greenville SC Taliban mindset.

  • X||

    *needs a cite that you are a net taxpayer

  • Rather||


  • PIRS||

    Fair enough Shrike. DO you agree that I should not have to fund progressive reeducation camps?

  • ||

    I say kill the whole public school system before Taliban-conservatism is publicly funded.

  • PIRS||

    Would you agree then, to support getting the government out of the education system in the United States entirely? That is the Rothbardian-anarcho-capitalist position? DO you agree with us on that?

  • Stern DePott||

    Yes. That "promote the general Welfare" crap was written more than a hundred years ago.

  • ||

    You wouldn't, taxes would go to a subsidy to PARTENTS, who would then be free to spend the money as they wish.

  • ||

    And has somehow been wildly mal-interpreted as "promote the general Welfare State."

  • ||

    Serious question - serious answer.

    I am no Rothbard fan and I prefer a voter-supported public education system that operates within the confines of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

    If the voters rejected that thesis in favor of anarcho-nothingness - that is OK with me.

  • ||

    So they can't teach religion but they can teach socialist horseshit? A million Bob Jones, who runs one college that no one even knew about until tiresome fucks like you started bitching about it, couldn't do the damage to this country people like Jonathan Kozal have done.

  • ||

    First Amendment is a bitch, pal.

    You could try to get 3/4 of the states to kill it.

  • ||

    It is not a bitch at all. It doesn't say what you think it does. As long as you fund equally, there is nothing that says you can't fund religious schools. Now if you only said Methodists schools get funded, that would be a problem. But if you fund all equally, you are not establishing a religion. Government money goes to religious institutions all the time. You don't think you can use a Pell Grant to go to Notre Dame or Yshiva?

  • ||

    Well, I admit there are some fine religious schools.

    As far as prorating funding by sect? You got me there.

    I am not up on the latest but Rothbard is suddenly looking better.

  • ||

    These things have a way of taking care of themselves. 50,000 people go to the University of Michigan. Like 2,000 or even fewer go to Bob Jones. And places like Notre Dame just are not very religious even though a church runs them. The reason is that there are very few people who actually want some strict religious education. The market and demand kind of solves the problem of people going to crazy religious schools.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    The first amendment says that the US government isn't going to support one religion over the other. If they attach the money to the student, and the student decides to go to a religious school, then the student is supporting a religion, not the government.

  • ||

    Can I use my welfare money to play church bingo?

  • PIRS||

    OK, this actually sounds like progress compared to some of your previous positions. But let me ask you another question. If parents recieve a voucher, [excluding the religion issue] how much control over thier child's education should they have? For example, suppose that a parent wanted to send their kid to a school that tought students multiple languages but that did not teach anything about math or science? Should that parent be permitted to use tax dollars for this purpose?

  • ||

    Or art school. My girlfriend went to a private, non profit arts highschool where she developed all sorts of useful skills that are still helping her today while my by-the-books educations continues to gather dust in a closet somewhere.

  • ||

    1st amdendment was meant to stop a Church of America. It does NOT prevent government money from going to religious schools.

    The 1st amendment doesn't say anything about a wall between church and state.

  • Almanian||

    What Kroneborge said.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    What part of separation of church and state is so complicated?

  • Patient Constitution||

    The word "separation," which does not appear in the First Amendment. People have been arguing about the meaning of "separation" since Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists. This bickering about the meaning of "separation" is second only to "militia" in pointlessness. You either get the concept or you don't.

  • generic shrike post||

    I hate religion, yet treat government like it WAS a religion.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Don't be a moron, Shrike. If Catholic schools get the job done, more power to them. And don't think that I'm one of those nutcases. I'm not. I just want kids to get a quality education.

    Vouchers do not equal $$$ to religious schools. They mean the $$$ is attached to the student, and the student can take the money wherever the hell they please. Jesus Christ High or Atheism Academy, makes no difference.

    Think, if you still have the capacity. I'm begging you...

  • Yeah sherreek||

    You prick, what's worse, a fucking Catholic school or a Los Angeles Unified union-controlled, violent, 50-percent-dropout-rate-liberal-progressive-gulag-for-kids "school"? The LA school, you can claim, is voter approved. I'm no supporter of my money funding religious schools, but how do you justify this kind of public school?

  • Bruno Behrend||

    The libertarian / atheist fear of dollars going to "madrassas" is as silly as it is unfounded. The "public schools" are secular humanist madrases already, and are churning out generations of people who are trained to post things like this comment.

    If we expand improved versions of California's parent trigger acrossvthe nation, we can start the process of dismantling the existing system.

    This will create a vast array of educational options.

  • PIRS||

    I encourage people who think government should "do something" about education to do the following. Walk into a bookstore or library. Pick a novel off the shelf that was a "best seller" (or that era's equivalent) in the United States before the U.S. got "universal education". Then, take a novel off the shelf that was a "best seller" in the United States within the past ten years. Compare the two in terms off plot, vocabulary and character development. Need I say more?

  • Today's Student||

    Can I compare games instead?

  • PIRS||

    Sure, compare the thought it takes to play chess to the thought that it takes to play Assasin's Creed.

  • Today's Student||

    AC takes a lot more. With chess I just keep trying until the computer responds with some move.

  • PIRS||

    LOL, I do know some teens who have probably never played a game that did not require electricity.

    But, chess (played weel) on a real physical board does not allow you to "restart" from a previous position once you are checkmated. Once you are checkmated that is it, no backsies. To play well, it requires planning ahead your moves.

  • ||

    We've diluted education down to drivel.

  • Robert||

    The trouble with federal reform of education is the set of "control knobs" the feds have. Since the feds actually do very little in the way of education (The military academies...uh...anything else?), about the only way they can improve edu-policy is by spending money on things, or by forcing others to do so.

    Can anybody here formulate some significant federal legislation that'd have the remotest chance of passage that'd do anything significant in the way of education reform?

  • ||

    How about this, create a national high school test. Make it really hard. Make it a test of reading, math, history, science and at a level that ideally you would want every kid to know when they graduate high school. Then administer it every year and give every kid who passes $25,000. Then take the rest of the education budget, and give it out in the form of vouchers.

    The rest would take care of itself. People would no longer tolerate bad schools because it would cost them money. Kids who won't study now would be studying their asses off trying to get the money. Private schools would arise to replace the failing public ones. It would create a sea change in our youth culture.

  • Shirts & Skins||

    @ John: That's a great idea!

  • ||

    Wow! I like that!

    (as long as the vouchers are redeemed at only schools who respect the Establishment Clause.)

    I am on Hitchen's side - religion poisons everything.

  • ||

    But we give money to religious schools at the college level and the world hasn't ended. And further, if you have a really big, hard test, the schools won't have time to teach much religion anyway. That is if they want their students to pass and for people to go there.

  • Some Guy||

    As long as the test respects the establishment clause (including not censoring itself because some people's feelings get hurt if someone teaches their kid evolution) then I could care less if the school respects it (although it'll be on the test, too.)

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    I don't have a lot of good things to say about religion, but if some poor person wants to be taught by a religious school, then I say let them.

    I think John has a good point: make it so hard that schools will go back to teaching the basics.

  • ||

    Would just promote teaching to the test and enlarge the manual making industry that already does this for things like tje ASBAV.

    Plus it allows highjacking of the curriculum by special interest who obviouy know what kids need to learn.

    Best to leave it to the family. Its amazing what you can learn if you think it'll make you money

  • ||

    In countries where everything resolves around a final large test at the end of high school, it's always a horrible mess.

    You don't get a rise in school quality, it lowers because they're only teaching to pass the test. There's no rise in private schools, there is a rise in private exam cramming schools like Princeton Review.

  • crazyfish||

    At least the cramming schools teach more efficiently the things students need to know for the test. So what if it is teaching to the test? At the end of the harrowing exam, the students know more than before, even if it is a regurgitation of facts. That is significantly better than our current students who know anything at all.

  • crazyfish||

    At least the cramming schools teach more efficiently the things students need to know for the test. So what if it is teaching to the test? At the end of the harrowing exam, the students know more than before, even if it is a regurgitation of facts. That is significantly better than our current students who know anything at all.

  • crazyfish||

    At least the cramming schools teach more efficiently the things students need to know for the test. So what if it is teaching to the test? At the end of the harrowing exam, the students know more than before, even if it is a regurgitation of facts. That is significantly better than our current students who know anything at all.

  • P B||

    Bipartisan = REALLY bad idea.

  • Pop Quiz!||

    There are only nine unique commentators at H&R. True or false?

  • Shirts & Skins||

    False, Pop.

  • Pop Quizno||

    Or not.

  • Rather||

    You're on the right tract with the multiple personalities

  • Poop Quizmaster||

    I know!

  • Super Spoofer||

    There just have to be more than nine.

  • Max||

    The libertardian national convention could be held in a Wendy's.

    If it could afford a couple dozen straight jackets.

  • ||

    The problem with public school (speaking as somebody who was there less than 8 years ago) is that it is designed to turn kids into good little 1950's style bureaucrats, even though any business model that relies on 1950's style bureaucrats is now dead, and the children KNOW this. An education that focuses on an individual child's natural proclivities is completely out of the question.

  • ||

    To clarify: The Establishment Clause does NOT, under *any* possible stretch of a reading, prohibit people from spending their government handouts on services provided by non-profits that have a religious philosophy behind them. NONE.

    I can spend my welfare check on whatever I like including the tuition for catholic private school.

    It takes real genuine mendacious sophistry to say that subsidizing private education for the poor violates the Establishment Clause.

  • ||

    There's also a tension between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Not giving someone money because they might use it for religious purposes when the money is otherwise generally available sounds problematic from the Free Exercise perspective and, for that matter, from the free speech perspective. In the latter case, it's arguably content and/or viewpoint discrimination.

    Obviously, the solution to all of this is for government to get totally the heck out of education.

  • Some Guy||

    There is no tension whatsoever. If you're giving out the money, are you giving it to everyone similarly situated? Then it's fine. If you're not, it's not. If you're working on a government contract to provide some service, are you providing it to everyone equally, and not trying to promote your religion in the course of providing that service? If you are then you're fine. If not, then you're not. The end.

  • ||

    What are you talking about? The issue is quite simple.

    I can donate my welfare check or social security check to my church. With my food subsidy I can buy cookies from the church bake sale. If you give me an education subsidy I can spend it at catholic school.

    None of these activities violate the Establishment Clause. Whatever you're saying about "government contract to provide some service... providing to everyone equally" is completely irrelevant.

  • Some Guy||

    You fail at reading comprehension.

  • ||

    "Obviously, the solution to all of this is for government to get totally the heck out of education."

    Yes, it goes without saying. The objections (from the left) to vouchers on the grounds of the Establishment Clause are disingenuous however.

  • ||

    Beware the Republicrats in general!!

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  • Some Guy||

    Yay for the Everyone is Above Average Act of 2011!

  • ||


    I know this is a reference to some school survey where every school or teacher was deemed "above average" but I can't remember what the question was about. Anyone know this one?

  • ||

    Ah, the Lake Wobegon effect, no wonder it sounded so familiar.

  • ||

    Get the federal and state governments totally, without qualification or exception, out of education. Get local governments out of it as well. Then, there isn't any point to arguments about the Establishment Clause contrasted with the Free Exercise Clause contrasted with the Santa Clause. All BS. No government at all period in education. Cut the Gordian Knot and at the same time cut out all the bull that the status quo produces.

  • ||

    The best way for the federal government to “do something together for our children that will build America's future, strengthen our economy and reflect well on us all” would be to shut down the federal Department of Education.

    American education fell off a figurative cliff on October 17, 1979, the day the Department of Education was split off of that other great bureaucratic monstrosity, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. On that day, American education went from being a largely local concern dealing with local circumstances to being a collection of one-size-fits-all mandates from hordes of bureaucrats in some city a long, long, way away. On that day, the goal of education went from being the academic instruction of kids to being some fuzzy feel-good thing of pampering their egos, and embarking on a grand social-engineering experiment of enforced egalitarianism.

    When the academic objective of education becomes diluted with efforts to create new Democrats, guess what, the academic objective suffers. You can watch it happening, year after year, as American kids fall farther and farther behind the kids of the rest of the world.

    Do American kids a favour and shut down the DoE.

  • ||

    It takes just one fundamental change in the system(education, health care) to make it work. Put the money in the hands of the(student, patient)consumer.

  • Joshua||

    You used an awful lot of words to say "we just can't trust the fuckers"

  • ||

    Bipartisan; any legislation, regulation, or position sufficiently idiotic to attract the support of twits belonging to both political parties.

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