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Like I Said: When It Comes to NCLB, Be Careful What You Wish For

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Remember a while back when I suggested that maybe efforts to scrap No Child Left Behind might not actually accomplish the goals we really want them to if we think about the larger items on the agenda? Chad Aldeman over at Bellwether Education read over Sen. Lamar Alexander's plans for reauthorizing ESEA and noted that it essentially writes states a $14.9 billion blank check to do whatever they want. As Aldeman puts it:

For the last 50 years, since the first federal K-12 education dollars began flowing to states, states had to ensure federal money was being spent on poor students and that they weren't using federal investments as a replacement for state or local funding. Since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, states have also had to measure and do something about student learning results...Alexander would end this quid pro quo relationship. Instead of states having to comply with federal rules in order to get federal money, Alexander's bill would require the U.S. Secretary of Education to prove states didn't deserve federal money.

So, just to review: Alexander's bill would still provide a flow of money to the states, but the money would come with no strings attached. What if the federal government looked into a state and determined that the money it allocated for, say, improving educational outcomes among poor students was not actually being spent that way? Well, the government would have to prove its case.

You read that right. Imagine it this way: I give my teenage son $50 to buy gas for the car. Instead he spends it on something else. In Sen. Alexander's crazy world, my son wouldn't have to prove that he spent the money on gas—I'd have to prove that he didn't. Makes sense, right? 

We can try to give Sen. Alexander the benefit of the doubt on this one. What he seems to be after is "transparency" and trust, with the idea being that the federal government's job is just to provide money but that the states know best how to spend it. Unfortunately, though, this is one of those ideas that seems a lot smarter in theory than it actually does in practice. Maybe I can trust my son to spend money the way I want him to. Can I trust his friend to spend my money that way? Or some total stranger? The longer you think about this the more it looks like one of those transparently cynical maneuvers to make government look incompetent. Just wait a few years and you'll be hearing again about wasteful government spending or, worse, about cuts to education funding that have sadly become necessary because despite all the money being spent to educate kids no progress is being made. The cycle of crisis will begin anew.

We also have a bill emerging out of the other house of Congress, since that's how this works. Over there, Rep. John Kline says he'll have something on the president's desk by the end of March. That's warp speed in Washington. This bill, a revived version of the Student Success Act, at least removes former Rep. Eric Cantor's voucher proposal, but it also devolves many decisions about how to spend federal education dollars to the states and it has already been established that both Kline and Alexander are proponents of school choice. Lauren Camera over at Politics K-12 has the scoop:

Among other things, the Student Success Act would keep NCLB's testing regime in place (each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school), but leave the actual school improvement decisions completely up to states. It would combine a slew of education programs—including those for migrant children, delinquent students, English-Language learners, and others—into one giant funding stream, with the aim of giving states and districts maximum flexibility...The bill would also repeal the "maintenance of effort" requirement, which requires school districts and states to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal dollars. It would eliminate the current law's requirement that teachers be "highly qualified," which means they must show they are competent in the subject they are teaching, hold a bachelor's degree, and be certified in their states.

If Camera has it right, then this bill would combine a whole mess of special education programs and, again, give states carte blanche to figure out how to serve the students previously served by those programs. Worse, states won't have to show that they are making a financial commitment of their own to educate the kids served by these programs in order to get money—that sounds like the definition of a "government handout" if there ever was one. Worse yet, if Alexander's provision is incorporated into the final bill, the federal government's job will be to prove that those kids are not being served to stop the flow of money.

The practical upshot of such a plan is this: a state could refuse to provide funding for special education programs (does anybody think Alabama and Arizona are going to keep educating the children of immigrants if they don't have to?) but still receive a mountain of federal dollars for it anyway. Maybe Alabama and Arizona have a right not to provide such services—but do they then also have a right to federal tax dollars with no strings attached, especially if those dollars were intended to be spent educating the very populations they may be disinclined to serve?

That's just one example. You might have also noted that Kline's bill keeps annual testing in place (I was wrong about that; I thought they'd exploit anti-testing fervor to pass a bill quickly but it turns out they think they don't need to), and also seeks to remove the "highly qualified" teacher provision of ESEA. The highly qualified provision is hardly perfect, but this kind of relaxation of the requirement wouldn't seem to do much to improve the professional status of teachers. This is probably a calculated swipe at teacher education programs, not at the state departments of education who create the often ridiculous and onerous requirements for certification that those programs are subjected to. But remember: state governments are the Republicans' constituency. College and university faculty are most definitely not. They can control department heads in states where they have control, which, as it turns out, is a lot of states. They can't control tenured faculty.

Now I'm not saying I know exactly what Kline is after—maybe, like Alexander, he has good intentions. But that doesn't mean they aren't misguided. One of the first things you learn when you start studying politics and policy is that stated intentions often morph into unintended consequences. No policymaker has a crystal ball (despite what some would have you believe), and sometimes policymaking is more art than science. But it is possible to anticipate some of the effects of lawmaking, and I hope our congressmen have considered the likely impacts that an ESEA reauthorized along these lines might have.

The really important point I want to make is this one: both Kline and Alexander are talking about trust and transparency, but the ulterior motive seems to be to substantially diminish, if not completely decimate, the federal government's role in shaping education policy. Maybe it should be diminished; it probably should, in some ways. But we ought to remember that Arne Duncan will not be Secretary of Education forever, and when Race to the Top is a distant memory, and when VAM has finally been discredited as a teacher evaluation scheme, and when there are no more NCLB waivers to dangle in front of states, we may be left with a law that requires the federal government to send our tax dollars to states that are not required to use that money the way it was intended to be used at all. And we may be left with a federal government powerless to do anything about it. 

Theoretically some of these ideas might make sense. Theoretically. In the real world, though, actual accountability ought to follow dollars. And this is what actual accountability looks like: we want money spent this way, we have the right to see that this is the way it's spent. Firing teachers because their kids didn't get good test scores isn't accountability. It's just mean. But you can bet your bottom dollar—you know, the one you plan to spend without getting anything in return—that we'll be hearing more about teacher accountability if this reauthorization becomes law. Because how else are we going to make sure our public schools take their responsibility to educate kids seriously?

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