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Two Visions of the Federal Role

Last night, in the State of the Union, President Obama played it pretty safe when it came to education. He was for more college affordability, higher expectations and performance for K-12, and more pre-K. Not much that anyone is going to object to.  Even his oblique reference to "more challenging curriculums" was pretty darn discreet, so much so that I was a little surprised to see analysis so immediately flag it as a veiled reference to the Common Core.

Obama's remarks highlighted two essential truths. First, even today, there is a surprising depth of agreement on the broad strokes of what we want in schooling. I've never met a "reformer" who wanted schooling to be just about reading and math scores, or a skeptic who didn't concede that we need to do something to ensure that a given kid isn't perpetually stuck in a dead-end classroom in a lousy school. I know no reformer who believes that teacher evaluation systems will "fix" education, or any skeptic who won't concede that we need better teacher evaluation. Heck, I don't know any conservatives who are opposed to "high-quality" pre-K--though I know many (including me) who are skeptical that a massive infusion of cash will amount to more than an ineffectual, bureaucratic mess.  All the important disagreements are really about how to do these things, what we can do well, and who ought to do it.

That brings us to the second truth--which is that, even among those who broadly agree on the goals, there are big disagreements about how to get there.  President Obama  last night celebrated Race to the Top, credited the federal government with helping prod states to "raise expectations and performance," said the federal government would help with high school redesign and with partnering high schools with colleges, and again called for federal efforts to spur the expansion of pre-K.

In all of this, Obama has embraced the legacy of the Bush administration. Building on what Mike Petrilli and I once labeled the "Washington consensus," the Obama administration has aggressively upsized the notion that the feds need to police the states when it comes to schooling. The Bush innovation was the belief that the feds needed to require states to adopt tests, transparency, disaggregation, and particular remedies for certain schools. Obama has supersized that by also using Race to the Top, NCLB waivers, School Improvement Grants, and other efforts to more minutely direct state policy on teacher evaluation, reading and math standards, and much else. This approach relies on the premise that, left to their own devices, too many states will not do the right thing--and that states are more likely to do these things well if encouraged, supported, and monitored by federal expertise.

That's not a ridiculous school of thought. It's not malicious or "corporatist," it's reasonable and enormously well-intentioned. But the Bush-Obama approach also rests on a number of questionable assumptions about the nature, skill, and deftness of federal leadership.

On that note, especially notable was another set of remarks delivered yesterday. At AEI, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Tim Scott (R-SC) discussed legislation they've just unveiled in the U.S. Senate. Together, Alexander's "Scholarship for Kids Act" and Scott's "CHOICE Act" would permit those states which so desired to attach federal funds to low-income students and those with special needs; make sure those students had a broader array of choices than they now enjoy; and then dramatically scale back the raft of federal rules, mandates, and regulations about how to deliver schooling. The proposals would not require states to offer private school choice, charter schooling, particular public school choice plans, or anything else, but would allow states to attach those funds to the students in question and then permit families to use those funds within whatever choice framework state officials chose to adopt.

Alexander and Scott would retain the Bush-Obama commitment to regular testing, disaggregation, and transparency, but they would abandon the presupposition that the feds should tell states how to improve low-performing schools, evaluate teachers, or the rest.  It's a much more humble vision, one which denies that federal officials know how to improve schools--and which suggests that even well-intentioned efforts to do so often deliver more confusion, bureaucracy, and paperwork than educational improvement.

Now, many teachers and parents might just say that they're really not up for any of this.  They'd like to put the genie back in its pre-NCLB bottle, take their federal funds, lose the NCLB testing requirements, and all that came after, and call it a day. But the thing is, that's not happening.  You can't put genie back in bottle--and the fact is that the transparency of the NCLB era has been healthy for schooling, enormously so for those kids who were once so casually and invisibly left behind.

So, the real question, going forward, is which of the two visions on display here they'll ultimately choose to embrace. 

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