The Federal Role In Education

Mike Petrilli has an excellent piece on Flypaper about lessons for the next administration on the limits of federal involvement in education policy.  He’s reacting to a report by Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham laying out an agenda for the federal government, which presumably they will be helping administer for an Obama administration.

Having learned these lessons the hard way, Mike warns that Sara and Andy are falling into old traps despite the best of intentions.  Mike argues that giving money to favored organizations, such as KIPP charters and Teach For America to “Grow What Works” will suffer from the same flaws as the Bush administration’s efforts to give money to favored organizations, such as Reading First.  Even if the favored groups are doing great work, giving money to them will be portrayed by opponents and the media as cronyism and pork. 

In addition, Mike notes that expanding Teach For America and KIPP requires cooperation from state and local agencies to lift caps on charters, equalize funding for charters and traditional public schools, and relax certification requirements.  The problem is that state and local agencies have perfected the art of subverting federal mandates.  At best unwilling state and local agencies will minimally comply with federal requirements while eviscerating their spirit.  At worst they will defy the requirements and dare the federal government to withhold funds.  The feds generally lack the political nerve to risk the political fallout from actually applying a sanction to a local or state education agency.

Let me expand Mike’s observations to draw lessons for the future of No Child Left Behind.  Like Mike, I once believed that the federal government could use the carrots and sticks (mostly sticks) in NCLB to motivate local and state education agencies to improve.  Since I was convinced by evidence that incentive systems worked, why shouldn’t the federal government do what works? 

My mistake and the mistake of NCLB was in not considering how much implementation of those incentive systems matters.  The federal education bureaucracy lacks the familiarity with local circumstances, the nimbleness to respond to changing circumstances, and the political will to apply sanctions to properly implement an incentive system.  Incentive systems are good for education reform but the federal government is too big, slow, far-away, stupid, and cowardly to do it right. 

The same is likely to be the case when the federal government tries to expand Teacher For America and KIPP under an Obama administration.  As Andy and Sara will soon discover and as Mike has warned them, the federal government will be obstructed by unwilling local and state actors.  And the mandates the Feds issue to overcome that resistance will trample upon or fail to anticipate local circumstances.

So what can the federal government do right?  First, they can continue to improve the availability of information about the school system.  NCLB deepened and entrenched the testing requirements that 37 states had already adopted before NCLB was adopted.  Improving transparency facilitates better policy evaluation and the development of effective state and local accountability systems.

Second, the federal government can facilitate “redistributive” efforts that localities cannot pursue without being punished by collective action issues.  For example, no locality can operate a substantial special education or English language learner program without attracting more students needing services, which then drives up the costs of the programs and drives away the local tax base that pays for those programs.  (See Paul Peterson’s The Price of Federalism for a great discussion of this).  To the extent that we want redistribution, we need the federal government to mandate it.  And I fully confess that I depart from my Cato colleagues in that I think we need some (but very limited) redistribution.

Third, the federal government can fund pilot programs to experiment with new ideas and approaches.  But I should emphasize that I think the federal government has no business evaluating or paying for evaluations of those efforts.  The evaluation process in the US Department of Education and the small number of contract-research firms is far too politicized to be reliable.  Instead, the federal government should play its role of improving transparency by making data on the pilot programs it sponsors available to any qualified researcher rather than to a favored research firm.  The Feds should heavily be in the data collection and distribution business, much as the Department of Commerce makes economic data available, but they should leave analyses of those data to the market of ideas.

The failures of the Bush administration have been a humbling experience.  But we are doomed to repeat their mistakes if we do not learn from them and limit the federal role in education to what the Feds can actually do well.

(edited for typos)

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9 Responses to The Federal Role In Education

  1. [...] and Andy are falling into old traps despite the best of intentions.  Mike argues that giving money Source Art and graphic design schools – [...]

  2. Reason says:

    Dr. Greene,

    For someone attached to MI and well read in conservative and libertarian lit you are awfully sympathetic to centralized “federal” power. This is disconcerting. Ludwig Von Mises knew that totalitarianism was to some extent a product of public education wrote back in the 1920s:

    “There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions.”

    Is there any federalism left anyway? Can a Massachusetts nullify or reject any egregious mandate from Mordor D.C.?

  3. Eugene says:

    Nice article. Thanks. :) Eugene

  4. Terrifically helpful.

    I’m curious about the role of transparency in these matters — to what degree does transparency act as a force for improvement?

    In what areas?

    And by what mechanism(s)?

    This isn’t an expression of skepticism, btw. I’m very curious about this question & assume there’s an entire literature on transparency I have yet to come across.

  5. [...] and now Jay Greene argue that Sara and I are, in Mike’s words, “claim[ing] that the federal government will [...]

  6. Angelique Lapeyre says:

    Thank you for clarifying that argument and providing your own insights. I was having difficulty making sense of the nutshell version of the disagreement provided by both sides.

    I liked your suggestion that the fed. gov’t’s role should be data colletion (but not analysis) on pilot programs. By extension, I also agree that one of the best things to come out of NCLB are the data requirements. So long as there are transparent and detailed data on each school’s performance at the public’s fingertips, the inadequacies of public education are hard to ignore. I’ve come around to your thinking that states and local districts are better poised (and more nimble) to address the problems reflected in some schools’ dismal numbers.

  7. Hi Catherine,

    Sorry for the delay in answering your good questions. I am defining transparency broadly as simply information. If information about schools exist, then people can do research that examines what is effective and what is not. And information is always helpful to the consumer — of course assuming that consumers have choices. But consumers always have the choice of homeschooling, moving to another school district or paying for private school, even if there are significant financial barriers to those choices. Lastly, as Angelique mentioned, information can have political consequences by making more salient issues related to school quality.

  8. [...] and now Jay Greene argue that Sara and I are, in Mike’s words, “claim[ing] that the federal government will [...]

  9. Maniel says:

    Mr. Greene,
    I agree with your premise that the federal government has limited insight into the mechanics and challenges of various local schools. I send my kids down the street to school. I hate sending my money – money that is needed here – to Washington to fund the latest idealistic scheme of the “well-intentioned.” You also make an excellent point that, as administrations change, any randomly successful federal program will be immediately overtaken by some new scheme. Education programs in Washington should be limited to teaching members of congress and the executive branch about the US Constitution and the fundamentals of economics; I am sympathetic that they were shortchanged themselves, but they are presumably adults and should become lifelong learners.

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