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How School Choice Could Come Back To Bite Republicans In The Butt


The new Republican-led Senate is moving extremely quickly to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the nation’s most expensive and comprehensive K-12 education law. In fact, it appears there will be no more hearings on the proposal, and it will face a full House vote this month. The bill in play, sponsored by Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), was released two weeks ago. So we’re getting six weeks between a release of a 400-page bill plus whatever amendments show up, and a final floor vote.

It’s not clear why Republicans are rushing to send President Obama a reauthorization, given that he far prefers ruling education with his phone and pen. Right now, Obama has granted himself dictatorial power over U.S. education by requiring states to submit to his policy preferences rather than the law Congress passed 14 years ago. He calls it “NCLB waivers” or “flexibility,” but the only entity who gets any flexibility out of this is Obama, which is why he’s partial to the situation.

If Obama does decide to restrict his own tyranny, anything he is likely to sign is likely to be a bad bill, given that his education priorities in the past six years have been 1) pushing states into Common Core 2) expanding federal data collection about individual children and removing requirements that their parents know what government agents collect and share about their kids 3) pushing states into teacher evaluations based on tests, which has not yet resulted in any measurable increase in student achievement or higher rates of bad-teacher dismissal, and 4) expanding the cradle-to-grave nanny state (e.g. more government daycare—euphemistically termed “preschool”—”free” community college, and a dramatic expansion in schools taking feeding and healthcare responsibilities from parents).

Loving School Choice to Death

Obama and Republicans have common ground on K-12 education in one major area: Charter schools. In this, Obama has long bucked the teachers union gorillas in the Democrat closet. And who can really rage against charter schools, given that high-quality studies keep showing these independent public schools educate children better and for less cost than traditional public schools? Unions can, but Obama occasionally ignores them, since they backed Hillary instead of him in 2008.

The problem with federal support for charter schools is the problem with federal support for a lot of things: Federal support usually means money with strings attached, which often ends up suffocating the thing you’re trying to inflate. Charter schools have flourished—exploded, even—with little federal interference. They are already a successful local- and state-driven experiment. Federal programs for regular schools have been notoriously ineffective. So how can anyone suppose that new federal programs for charter schools will be any better?

Nationwide Charter School Enrollment, 2000-2012. Source: Center for Education Reform.
Nationwide Charter School Enrollment, 2000-2012. Source: Center for Education Reform.

Alexander’s draft bill authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Education to carry out a “charter school program” that “conducts national activities to support…dissemination of best practices of charter schools for all schools,” and provides both states and charter networks grants for the start-up, replication, and expansion of “high-quality” charter schools.

Don’t Bully People’s Kids If You Want Their Votes

This is small potatoes, though, compared to a greater danger in federal meddling with private schools. The clued-in parents angry about Common Core are by now well-educated on the federal mechanisms Obama used to push it down states’ throats, and this politically influential demographic is paying attention to the NCLB rewrite. One of their major concerns is reflected in the growing national resistance to testing mandates. Parents are hearing two things from their schools, whether private, charter, or public: We have to do Common Core because we have to get the kids to pass Common Core tests. And, second, your child is absolutely required to take those tests or we may hold him back a grade.

Essentially every standardized test in the country has become a one-way ratchet towards Common Core.

I recently received an email from a high-school teacher, who forwarded a note from her school district, responding to growing inquiries from parents about excusing their children from these tests (which, by the way, is perfectly legal in almost every state). It said any teacher caught informing parents of their right to refuse tests would be disciplined or fired. The intimidation tactics are getting intense, and they are provoking the response you might expect. Many school districts force test resisters to sit in class during the test and stare at their paper or computer screen, doing nothing for the several hours it takes their classmates to complete the tests. They call this “sit and stare.” Imagine how moms and dads feel about that one, and how likely it is to intensify their opposition to testing mandates.

Essentially every standardized test in the country has become a one-way ratchet towards Common Core. The SAT and ACT are now Common Core-aligned tests, which matters to every parent whose child might attend college. Almost every state test is a Common Core test, which in states with voucher programs forces private schools into Common Core because they often have to administer these tests to admit voucher students. So much for school choice. Even the tests common to private schools, such as the Iowa Basics or Stanford Achievement Test, are all newly absorbed by the Common Core Borg (previous, non-Common Core versions of these tests are still available, FYI, but rarely used).

Mainstream Republicans have insisted that most voucher programs established to date force private schools to measure their curriculum according to state criteria by administering state tests, in the name of “accountability,” even though that same “accountability” applied to public schools has yielded essentially no statistical difference in the number of abysmally performing schools, which remain open decades after test-based “accountability” became the national policy. This is why Alexander’s current testing provisions, which would let states choose to either keep annual testing mandates or propose their own alternative, is a good step forward. Indeed, to avoid having conservative parents team up with teachers unions to kill off school-choice programs just as they’re getting a foothold, state lawmakers should lift testing mandates and other government intrusions on private schools pronto.

And Alexander’s bill needs some improvement, as Bill Evers and Ze’ev Wurman, both former USDOE officials, point out in the best analysis of the proposal I’ve seen yet:

We like the effort Alexander’s draft makes to prohibit the Secretary from meddling (whether controlling or just ‘incentivizing’) not only in state curriculum and assessment like before but also in state standards, cutting off the disingenuous excuse Secretary Duncan  used to dictate his preferred curriculum and assessment to states under the guise of peddling ‘only’ standards. We feel, however, that this prohibition is currently present in the draft in varying forms in different sections, potentially contributing to confusion. We believe that using a largely uniform prohibition language in different sections and—perhaps even better—also having a strong and detailed global prohibition on Secretary’s meddling in the General Provision (Title IX) of the bill, similarly to what the Roberts draft suggests, is a necessary improvement.

The danger in Alexander hurrying his bill through so quickly is that this major reset of federal K-12 policy will occur without sufficient time to discuss what will rule the nation’s schools for the next decade. Concerns such as those from Evers and Wurman should be heard, and senators should have the time to consider revisiting the A-PLUS proposal from previous congresses, which offers an even more appropriately limited federal role.

Federal education policy under Obama and former President George W. Bush has gone off the rails. Neither No Child Left Behind nor its regulatory rewrite from Obama, nor previous federal policies, have yielded anything but a drastic increase in taxpayer-employed paper-pushers and pronounced shift of power from parents and communities to Washington. It’s time to do a lot more than put this ravening monster on a slightly lower-calorie diet.

Source: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Source: Cato Institute
Source: Cato Institute