Politics & Policy

Dems Pull the Race Card on Education, Again

(Sean Gallup/Getty)
Liberals deploy the same old tactics to shoot down any attempts to curtail bad federal laws.

It has taken liberal school reformers almost no time at all to throw the race card into the debate about reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

Eager to retain an expansive federal role, but finding it tough to argue this position on the merits, liberal reformers have rushed to charge that the current effort to dial back the federal role is a thinly veiled attack on minority children.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon was provided just the other day by a Daily Beast column penned by Jonah Edelman, CEO of the education-advocacy group Stand for Children. Edelman is the scion of two liberal icons: Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Peter Edelman, a Clinton-administration official who famously resigned to protest welfare reform. Jonah is also a friend and a smart guy, and Stand for Children has done some laudable work.

Unfortunately, that’s what makes his column so notable when it denounces any effort to reduce the federal role as a surrender to the forces of “racism, politics, ignorance, [and] indifference.” Edelman perfectly illustrates the problems with liberal-flavored school reform and its hollow calls for “bipartisanship.”

In the piece, Edelman denounces efforts to shed some of No Child Left Behind’s more onerous and unworkable provisions as a “threat” to “your kids’ future.” He then recounts a parade of horribles from the last century. “Linda Brown was denied the opportunity to attend a nearby public school because she was black,” he reminds us. “Black students were denied access to a public high school by segregationist Governor Orval Faubus.” And states and districts weren’t meeting the “special needs” of students with disabilities.

This is a shopworn parlor trick — equating conservatives concerned about federal micromanagement of schooling in 2015 with the “states’ rights” segregationists of two or three generations past (who, for what it’s worth, were overwhelmingly Democratic). The teachers’ unions employ similar tactics when they argue that charter schooling will give rise to the kind of “segregation academies” that sprung up throughout the South in the 1950s.

But this sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand has not held up particularly well. Debating whether the federal government should tell states how to label, manage, and “improve” schools (all on the basis of reading and math scores) is a far cry from debates over whether states should be allowed to deny black students access to elementary and secondary schools. Moreover, those who, like Edelman, celebrate Uncle Sam’s expertise and the effectiveness of federal bureaucrats fail to acknowledge how often federal bureaucrats have gotten it wrong — and put in place laws and regulations that have gotten in the way of smart, promising reforms at the state and local level.

What are the issues that have Edelman so worked up? Republicans on Capitol Hill make no secret that they envision a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind that will significantly reduce the strings attached to federal education dollars. Among the possible actions: Allowing states to test students every few years rather than annually; getting the federal government out of the business of telling states how to design school-accountability systems or address low-performing schools; and making clear that (contrary to the Obama administration’s designs) the federal government should have no role in dictating state reading and math standards.

Casual followers of the education debate might notice that these changes seem both modest and sensible. Yet Edelman insists that if Congress dares to go down this path, “disadvantaged students will lose out, and millions of young people who could have become hard-working taxpayers will end up jobless, in prison, or worse.” (Worse?)

Edelman is not alone in his histrionics. He reflects an assumption held by many liberal reformers that a commitment to a sprawling federal role is the only acceptable course if one believes that “black lives matter.” Only Uncle Sam’s watchful eye will ensure that poor and minority kids will get a fair shake, and anyone who thinks differently is willing to consign millions of minority children to prison.

The deeper problem is that Edelman and his allies fail to grapple with the very real harm that federal education policy has caused, especially in the past decade. This is baffling, given his own admission that No Child Left Behind is “deeply flawed” and that “federal interventions don’t always work as intended.” But his solution — to simply update the law more regularly — indicates a misunderstanding of the realities of the legislative process (Congress updates laws when it will, not on the schedule of us pundits) and of the root problem. The real issue is not just that specific provisions of NCLB are problematic (though they are); it’s that the federal government is destined to mess up whatever it touches in education. That’s because it’s three steps removed from actual schools, with states and local districts sitting between its good intentions and its ability to ensure good results.

All the federal government can do is pass laws telling federal bureaucrats to write rules for the states, whose bureaucrats then write more rules for school districts, which in turn give marching orders to principals. By the time this game of telephone is done, educators are stuck in a stifling, rule-driven culture that undermines the kind of practical discretion that characterizes good schools.

During the Obama years, this problem has only grown worse. Convinced of their own righteousness and brilliance, Obama’s education officials have pushed all manner of half-baked ideas on the country (especially the demand that states evaluate teachers largely on the basis of test scores); helped turn potentially promising ideas into political hot potatoes (see Common Core); and embarked on ideological, deeply harmful crusades (using legal threats, for example, to discourage schools from disciplining minority students).

In recent years, education reform has been a rare issue where bipartisan cooperation was possible. Charter schools, testing, and teacher accountability have won support from the center-left to center-right, allowing for significant progress in policy and practice. Unfortunately, Edelman’s bombastic enthusiasm for big government, and his willingness to castigate any who disagree as akin to old-style segregationists, shows how liberal reformers are busy fracturing this fragile consensus. Education reformers on the left and right may not agree on Washington’s role in schooling, but here’s hoping we can have that discussion without resorting to playing the race card.  

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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