Yesterday, in the new issue of the quarterly National Affairs, Andrew Kelly and I argue that it's possible to devise a coherent, principled, and limited vision of the federal role in education-- and that such a vision offers an overdue and crucial alternative to the well-intentioned overreaching that has characterized federal ed policy for over a decade. We begin by observing:
The conservative approach to education policy is nothing if not confused. Conservatives cheer top-down federal standards and accountability while demanding bottom-up parental choice. They call for eliminating the federal Department of Education, but support spending on major federal education programs like Title I aid for disadvantaged students, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and student loans. They treat restoring "local control" as a panacea, while neglecting the fact that "local control" strengthens the grip of teachers' unions. They grumble about the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, but forget that the legislation passed with solid conservative support. They have applauded components of the Obama administration's education policies, even as those policies have taken federal overreach to new levels.
This incoherence is bad for conservatives and bad for the country. Lacking a sound, focused approach to federal education policy, conservatives have largely ceded the work of reform to progressives, who embrace sweeping national solutions and put unwarranted faith in the wisdom of federal bureaucracies.
Andrew and I draw heavily on the insights that emerged from our Harvard Ed Press book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America's Schools, and especially the adage that "the federal government can makes states and districts do things, but it can't make them do them well." Instead of well-meaning but bureaucratic, mechanistic efforts to "fix" schools from Washington, we ask how Washington might more usefully take measured, appropriate steps that can help position educators, entrepeneurs, and state and local leaders to do their work.
In place of vapid posturing, with conservative lawmakers giving fiery speeches about "turning off the lights" at the Department of Education and then voting to maintain or boost federal edu-spending, we argue: "It seems clear that the Department of Education isn't going anywhere. The real opportunity lies in reassessing what it is that the federal government should do and how we ought to properly circumscribe its role."
We charge that it's necessary, appropriate, and possible for principled conservatives to articulate a compelling vision of the federal role and sketch what the pillars of such a stance ought to be. Anyway, if you're interested, check out "A Federal Education Agenda."