Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly: ‘The Federal Role in Education Is Not Going Away’

by Reihan Salam

The opening of “A Federal Education Agenda” is brutal:

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.

Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly recount how the conservative approach to federal K-12 education policy has evolved through periods of enthusiasm and disillusionment over the past three decades. Basically, there is an oscillation between a belief in federal power — as a means of imposing standards and accountability, as a counterweight against the teachers unions, etc. — and a rejection of it in favor of a renewed commitment to local control. 

But even in these periods when conservatives notionally reject the idea of a federal role in education, Republicans in Congress almost uniformly back federal funding for Title I and special education, among other popular programs. The reason is obvious, as Hess and Kelly explain:

It is just as well for the GOP that such promises amount to little more than empty rhetoric: If Republicans were serious, voters would react poorly. In the mid-1990s, when House Republicans proposed eliminating the Department of Education, polls consistently suggested that 70% to 80% of voters opposed the effort. This election cycle, polling finds that 74% of respondents oppose eliminating the Department of Education, with even 56% of self-described conservatives opposed.

This creates a political and policymaking opportunity:

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. 

So what should this limited and narrow federal role look like? Hess and Kelly offer a broad outline:

(1) The federal government can and should create yardsticks that can give parents, students, and voters the ability to measure the quality and cost-effectiveness of their schools. This data can be used by independent researchers and entrepreneurs as well. It is important, however, that data collection and the enforcement of rigorous reporting requirements not be turned into a means of imposing rigid standards or curricula. 

(2) Just as the federal government backs basic medical research, there is a case for federal funding in the fields of cognitive science, applied reading techniques, and brain imaging, among others that could help foster downstream instructional breakthroughs. The idea is that this basic research can spur the efforts of private firms and foundations and state and local governments.

(3) Conservatives have long attacked education monopolies, but they have done relatively little to effectively undermine them. To that end, Hess and Kelly propose a trust-busting approach, e.g., eliminating federal regulations that stymie educational innovation at the state and local level.

(4) Hess and Kelly offer an even more radical idea. Failing school districts are in many cases taken over by state governments, which are generally very reluctant to challenge politically influential interest groups. Creating a new federal bankruptcy process for school districts might foster a more constructive dynamic:

Empowering local school districts in this way suggests a tension between state and local government, and conservatives will be inclined to want the federal government to stay out. But doing so means deferring to the existing monopoly. A better option is for conservatives to ask policymakers to offer opportunities for those local leaders who are so inclined to free themselves from entrenched monopolies. Federal policymakers ought to devise a bankruptcy-like mechanism that permits those school districts receiving federal Title I funds and deemed (by their states) to be performing inadequately to petition for relief from contractual obligations (with unions, vendors, and others) that constrain their efforts to improve schooling. Enabling and encouraging districts to use a bankruptcy-like route to solvency would help ensure that federal funds are spent in the best interests of children. And it might well have the side benefit of encouraging union leaders to recalibrate their demands and to start worrying about the financial health of their employers. Freeing local educators and leaders from unaffordable obligations and anachronistic contract provisions so that they can spend money on educating kids is a fight conservatives should welcome — and one they can win. [Emphasis added]

This is intriguing: the mere prospect that a school district could declare bankruptcy might curb the appetites of various constituents.