So I’ve been reading through the latest entries at the Rick Hess blog and find myself puzzled. If I may summarize, Rick says there is a group of people–some Democrats, some Republicans–who advocate for various robust federal and/or national education policies, including, as he puts it, ”a supersized, amped-up version of NCLB…embrac[ing] the Common Core [and] efforts to develop common curricula… federal direction on ‘highly effective teachers,’ ED’s anti-bullying crusade, federally-mandated school turnarounds, more Race to the Top, more federal ed spending, and so on.” And that these “self-styled,” “would-be,” “wide-eyed” reformers, these “enthusiasts” who are “eager to save the world” just don’t understand that today’s Republican legislators have legitimate small-government principles that must be understood and respected. And that:
The funny thing is that reform-minded progressives often honestly just don’t get small-government conservatism. After all, DFER-types and U.S. Department of Ed officials know in their bones that any sensible person sees the world like they do and would support government doing stuff that’ll work. Ergo, they think conservative critics are wacky ideologues, ignorant, or must just be out to make trouble. The most telling window into progressive thinking on this score may have been Kevin Carey’s New Republic article a few weeks back, the one in which Carey tried to explain Republican thinking on schooling to fellow progressives.
Carey casually suggested that Hill Republicans like House Higher Ed subcommittee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx are “crazy” for charging “that federal funding for education is unconstitutional,” that “the larger Republican caucus appears to have little interest in or knowledge of education,” and that House education chair Rep. John Kline’s stance on NCLB appears to amount to “letting states do whatever they want.” And this last, it’s clear, Carey regards as a very bad thing.
And that this hubris and narrow-mindedness is making various unnamed Republican Hill staffers angry, and now Grover Norquist is on board, and as a result the reformers are headed for some kind of unspecified comeuppance, the spectacle of which one gets the distinct sense that Rick is very much looking forward to observing and writing about, at length, in grand “I told you so” fashion, on his blog.
I have two questions.
Question #1 When do we get to the part in this story when all of the aggrieved Hill staffers and disrespected small-government conservatives actually explain how their sacred principles translate into law? Are we going to stop funding the Title I program for schools that serve low-income children? Get rid of Pell Grants that help low-income students afford college? Abolish IDEA and no longer require schools to meet the needs of students with disabilities?
Representative Virginia Foxx took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Representative Virginia Foxx believes that federal education laws are unconstitutional. Why, then, is Representative Virginia Foxx a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce? Why is she the chairwoman of the House Higher Education Subcommittee?
The U.S. Department of Education has been a cabinet-level agency for 30 years. The federal government has been reporting on the “condition of education” since the 19th century. Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act into law in 1862. Exactly how long have we, as a nation, been flagrantly violating our own Constitution by passing laws and providing money to support education?
Or, to put the question in more immediate terms: There are, broadly speaking, three approaches one can take to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:
1) Continue to provide billions of federal dollars to local school districts under various conditions, like requiring states to have standards and hold schools accountable for meeting them, and try to improve the efficacy of the conditions.
2) Continue to provide billions of federal dollars to local school districts with no conditions on the use of the money, because conditions are unconstitutional and/or tyranny.
3) Stop providing federal dollars to local schools districts and impose no conditions, laws, or regulations on local governance of public schools.
Which of these approaches do Congressional Republicans support? So far, the only actual proposal has come from Representative Duncan D. Hunter, a man whose abiding commitment to child welfare recently led him to support forcibly exiling American-born children who are United States citizens back to their parent’s country of origin. Hunter wants to abolish over 40 federal education programs, including some that were already de-funded in the 2011 budget, some that the Obama administration wants to de-fund in the 2012 budget, and some that have never received funding in the first place.
And you know what — he’s right! We should get rid of most of these programs. But let’s not pretend that taking a courageous stand against the Historic Whaling and Trading Partners grant program is in any way the same thing as putting forth a coherent or comprehensive federal education agenda.
Republicans in Congress are unwilling to say what they mean about education because doing so would create the same problem that they’re currently dealing with in the aftermath of their recent vote to abolish Medicare as we know it and deny healthy insurance to million of Americans: When taken to their logical conclusion, their principles lead to policies that are unpopular, cruel, and likely to get them thrown out of the offices into which they’ve only recently arrived.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the American people are eager for a huge rollback in federal support for education and Congressional Republicans are just waiting for the right moment to deliver on that promise. I await Republican education policies, or lack thereof, with eager anticipation.
Question #2: When do we get the part in this story when Rick Hess tells us what he believes? And no, don’t say it’s all in the book(s). I’ve read them, they’re smart and interesting and provocative, but they are far more specific in picking apart logical inconsistencies and failures of imagination among others than in providing specific guidance to federal lawmakers who have to make decisions, or not make them, in the here and now. Rick has laid out the issues on the table and described, in a voice that always stays safely at one level of observational remove, what other philosophically-like minded people think and feel. Wouldn’t the conversation benefit from his concrete recommendations, too?