Jack Jennings, the former Democratic staffer for the House Education and Labor Committee and current head of the Center on Education Policy, has a piece on Huffington/AOL/whatever that thing is. In case you aren’t familiar with his oeuvre you can read Greg’s “Check the Facts” on Jennings in Education Next a few years back.
In making the case for more federal spending on education and for national standards and assessments, Jennings asks:
How can the country raise academic achievement if 14,000 local school districts are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of education?
I thought about answering with evidence on how choice and competition among school districts improves educational outcomes from people like Caroline Hoxby, Henry Levin, and yours truly. But then I remembered that evidence is not really Jennings’ thing.
It might be better to answer Jennings’ question by slightly re-wording it to fit different contexts and see if it still seemed like a reasonable question. Here we go:
How can the country raise gross domestic product if 29.6 million businesses are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of the economy?
Or how about this:
How can the country reduce crime if there are more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies each making their own decisions on most key aspects of crime-prevention?
This is getting easy. Here’s another:
How can the country make good laws if 535 members of Congress are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of public policy?
Why would Jennings think that he is making a persuasive argument with a rhetorical question that is rebutted by rigorous research and seems silly when transplanted to other situations? Sadly, Jennings rhetorical question may win some converts and it does so not by being reasonable or by being consistent with research findings. Jennings uses this rhetorical question because it appeals to people’s desire for power, not their desire for evidence or logical consistency. When Jennings asks how we can make schools better with so many independent school districts, he is appealing to the reader’s fantasy that they or their allies might be able to dominate the enhanced central authority that would substitute for so many independent school districts.
Inside most public policy wonks is a mini-dictator, waiting to come out. They dream about how things ought to be organized… if only they were in charge. The drive for Common Core national standards is built on appealing to these mini-dictator fantasies.
Of course, if the mini-dictators realize that others are striving to control the central authority, they may turn against the idea if they think they are unlikely to be the ones in charge. That is our best hope. It is impossible to remove the thirst for power, but it is possible to (as the Founders realized) pit ambition against ambition in the hope that it will prevent tyranny.
(edited for typos)