Sigh. It’s now considered “federal overreach” to insist that states set performance goals for their students and schools. If you thought we settled this argument back in 1994, you would be wrong. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, backed out of bipartisan talks with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, because Harkin insisted on the goal that students make some annual progress over a “reasonable time period.” That’s probably all you need to know about the current state of federal education policy, but in case you’re a glutton for punishment, here are four more thoughts on Alexander’s alternative bill:
1. It’s shorter. Alexander really wants you to know his bill is less than one-fifth as long as Harkin’s. I’m all for brevity, but brevity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. We need to get past the point where page length means anything other than how long it will take you to read something.
2. Freedom for everybody! (Except, not really.) The bill’s purpose is to “restore freedom for parents, teachers, principals, Governors, and local communities so that they can improve their local public schools.” This just doesn’t make any logical sense, because not everyone can have complete freedom at the same time. If a governor has freedom to improve his state’s schools, his vision for what he wants to accomplish may directly conflict with the freedom of teachers to teach what they want to teach. A parent’s freedom to insist on what her child should learn is necessarily limited by the freedom of other parents to have their own prerogatives.
Most importantly, if you insist on state standards and assessments on those standards, as this law would continue, you are automatically limiting local control. This comes out most transparently in the waiver section of the bill. Under current law, a state or district can request a waiver from the U.S. Secretary of Education. For a district to receive a waiver, it must allow the state an opportunity to comment, but it doesn’t need the state’s approval. Alexander doesn’t like the district-level waivers that Secretary Arne Duncan is currently considering, so Alexander’s bill would amend this provision going forward. Under Alexander’s vision, “local control” means state control, because no district could get a waiver until the request had been “reviewed and approved by the State educational agency.” In other words, a district’s freedom would extend only as far as its state’s bureaucrats would allow.
3. Trust (but don’t verify). The most important word in Alexander’s bill is “assurance.” States would have to provide an assurance they’d adopted challenging academic standards and aligned assessments, an assurance that they have an accountability system, an assurance that they will identify schools in need of improvement and provide them some technical assistance, an assurance they will release results to the public, and an assurance they will monitor district implementation. There are no serious standards for these things and, even if there were, there would be no way to verify state assertions.
4. Abandon school choice. Conservatives have long favored school choice as an accountability mechanism, and Alexander’s bill would provide money to expand charter schools; but it doesn’t even insist that states should provide mechanisms so that students trapped in low-performing schools would be given the opportunity to choose a different school. Instead, districts “may” do this, provided it doesn’t conflict with state law. Once again, the bill defers to state judgments at all costs.
If you have any illusions about every state being a good actor on school performance, I encourage you to read the latest Education Sector report from John Chubb and Constance Clark. It found a wide and growing achievement gap that varies based on the state in which a student lives. Some states have produced fantastic results for students, but many others lag behind considerably. If you care at all about national education results, you probably don’t want to put all your faith in state assurances.
Photo Credit: Human Events