Chester Finn is right to bring up doubts about nationalizing Texas’s education policies, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Finn’s worry about national standards should apply more to his own views on federalizing education than to Gov. Rick Perry’s wish to free states from federal control. The real reason to doubt Perry’s reform credentials is his reluctance to press for an important reform opportunity now awaiting action in Texas.
Finn’s attachment to Common Core state standards, despite their current and persistent threat to local autonomy, shows that he is of two minds about federal power over education. He touts the benefits of federal imposition of education standards (“How about gravely ill jurisdictions like Ohio and Michigan where Uncle Sam might help reformers duke it out with entrenched unions?”) while criticizing NCLB, which had that as a central purpose. Although it’s reasonable to argue that a good idea was perverted into a bad law under NCLB, ideas that make bad laws may just be bad policy ideas. As Finn says of Governor Perry, you can’t have your Texas-sized cake and make the nation eat it, too.
Finn’s point that what may be good for Texas may not be good for the nation as a whole, in fact, is the precise reason to avoid vast federal mandates and crusades regarding education. Perry’s track record demonstrates he understands this. It is not the typical Texas bluster against “those dern feds” but a warning against federal education policies that have multiplied regulations like dandelions and tripled real spending on education in the past 50 years while doing nothing to raise kids’ achievement test scores.
Perry’s point is that raising the nation’s education quality is simply something that the federal government cannot accomplish. History suggests he is right in this regard, and that Finn’s hopes for a successful national crusade to raise children’s academic achievement will always be dashed upon the reality that the education establishment can adapt to anything except real competition. It is a laudable goal, but not one the federal government can achieve.
It’s important to fairly characterize Perry’s position: His education policies are middle-of-the-road Republican, not blazing reformer libertarian. Texas spends around $9,000 per year to educate each student, a middling amount. Perry’s great claims to education reform fame, moreover, are nothing like those of Indiana’s Mitch Daniels or even New Jersey’s Chris Christie, both of whom have punched out establishment forces and introduced significant programs like vouchers and business-run classrooms. Perry mostly employed his statehouse Republican advantage in tightening graduation requirements, implementing a noteworthy teacher merit pay program, and changing funding incentives for state universities. Good measures, to be sure, but nowhere near his rhetoric — nor do they merit Finn’s criticisms. In fact, they are positions Finn has supported.
In regard to Finn’s attempt to tar Perry with guilt by association with a certain former Texas governor, it’s clear Perry would never push “No Child Left Behind II: Requirements from Hell” on the nation as did George W. Bush. Perry opposes greater federal involvement in education — and he is no radical.
Texas is currently in special session to address a $4 billion hole in education spending for the upcoming fiscal year, and here resides Perry’s real vulnerability to criticism. If Perry wants to brand himself a serious reformer, he might stop ignoring a little bill called HB 33, which would save the state $2 billion over the next two years by giving all parents of currently public-schooled students a voucher worth up to $5,100.
What legislation Texas adopts this session can position Perry as an education-serious candidate, but without a significant measure like this, voters will have to parse budget and restructuring minutiae.
Perry doesn’t fall short on principles or rhetoric, as Finn suggests. His real shortcoming so far is in failing to press for a pending education policy reform big enough for Texas — and America.
— Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.