Politics & Policy

Conservatives Won’t Win Anything if They Hold Out for Total Victory in Education Fight

The Heritage Action strategy of eschewing incremental progress is a good way to get stuck with the status quo.

As the 114th Congress finds its legs, the struggle to define the Republican party’s direction — in light of its 2010 triumph, 2012 disappointment, and 2014 comeback, not to mention its all-important 2016 positioning — continues to be a lively one. There are a number of cross-cutting imperatives at stake. To focus on just a few: coming across as “a responsible, right of center, governing majority” that the American people don’t find “scary,” as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell put it; forging a positive policy agenda that embodies an alternative conservative vision of government (such as reform conservatism); staying true to the Tea Party and other grassroots activists whose energy helped secure the 2010 and 2014 victories, as well as helping elect leading lights such as Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio; and charting a long-term course that emphasizes objectives other than “losing more slowly” (or other than simply slowing the pace at which Democratic priorities are realized).

Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action, lays out his vision in the winter issue of National Affairs — one of the key venues in which the thinkers and policy wonks of the Right attempt to reconcile these considerations. Needham heavily emphasizes two of the factors mentioned above: fidelity to the ideal of a much smaller federal government, and the need to shift long-term trajectories even at the cost of forgoing short-term progress. What tea-party activists (and, he clearly implies, sensible Republican strategists) fear most is “issue drift,” in which big ideas are sacrificed to secure small victories. On the one hand, “few in the grassroots are against incrementalism per se,” Needham writes. “But incremental progress ought to be guided by a coherent vision of the direction such progress should take.” We agree. He adds, however: “With every means-tested retirement-benefit reform, spending-growth formula tweak, or modest tax compromise we rally around, we deflate the momentum for achieving transformation in these and other areas. For the Tea Party, there is too much on the line to embrace lowered expectations.”

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We argued that this latter way of thinking was unsound — and fundamentally unconservative — in an essay in the Summer 2014 issue of National Affairs, “The Conservative Governing Disposition.” Needham graciously nods at our point in passing, saying our critique of “maximalism” is “a reasonable enough general point,” but he insists that “its applicability to the conduct of the Tea Party is more limited than the movement’s critics would allow.”

An excellent test case for conservative governance in practice is the ongoing debate about the reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most recent version of which is known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Ramesh Ponnuru recently and usefully framed the factors in play, noting that the overarching question is whether the GOP can effectively counter “the dramatic centralization of education policy that has taken place in recent years.” The trend toward centralization is indeed worrisome. The poorly conceived No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002, unwisely required states to ensure that 100 percent of students performed at grade level on state-based tests by 2014 – a goal recognized as aspirational at the time of the law’s passage. The law also stipulated that failure to make progress toward 100 percent proficiency (and ultimately achieve it) would result in a sequence of escalating penalties. Congress’s failure to reauthorize the law in 2007 — and in every subsequent year — has given the Obama administration an excuse to grant waivers from NCLB in exchange for a plethora of its preferred policy changes, effectively circumventing Congress and making policy directly from the U.S. Department of Education. Five states were recently granted waivers through 2018–19, well into the next president’s term. This marks nearly a decade under the federal government’s waivers-with-conditions regime.

#related#To anyone concerned with the rule of law, as well as with the unintended pitfalls attending any technocratic manipulation of such a large and complex system, this should be deeply troubling. Richard Epstein has written clearly and forcefully on the general threat of “government by waiver,” and AEI’s Michael McShane and Max Eden have recently discussed the same issue in the specific case of NCLB reauthorization. The ongoing NCLB-waiver situation is corrosive to the rule of law and reflects the wrongheaded desire to control the nation’s education policies from Washington.

So it’s important — both for the future of education policy and as a bellwether for conservative governance in practice — to reach an agreement to reauthorize NCLB in a way that narrows and focuses federal involvement. Last Tuesday, news emerged that Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray had reached a bipartisan compromise that would limit the education secretary’s ability to attach conditions to NCLB waivers. In contrast, the House appears further from draft legislation. On February 27, House Republicans decided they would not vote on John Kline’s effort, H.R. 5 (also known as the Student Success Act), which, while imperfect, would have gone a long way toward reducing the federal role in education. Heritage Action opposed H.R. 5 for being insufficiently transformative, and many on the right cheered the pulled vote, declaring it a “win for conservatives.”

It is hard to see, though, how this could be construed as a win for anyone, especially those who wish to halt and reverse federal involvement in education. While we agree that strictly limiting the federal role in education should be a long-term priority, including rolling back the corrosive and unwise practice of waivers-with-conditions, a failure to reauthorize a reformed NCLB will in no way serve conservative and classical-liberal goals. We concur with Ponnuru, who concludes: “Even if the Student Success Act doesn’t get the federal role quite right, it’s still much better than the status quo — in which the Department of Education takes a policymaking role no Congress has ever authorized. It’s healthy for Republicans to debate about ideals, so long as they remember to take account of reality.”

By rejecting this view, Heritage Action shows its perspective on incremental gains for conservative goals: Everything short of total victory is unacceptable. Conceived of as a stalwart commitment to long-term conservative success, this is actually a formula for repeated and predictable failures. There is a rapidly shrinking window for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and if that window closes with nothing signed into law, waivers-with-conditions (and numerous other federal encroachments in current law) will very likely continue through the end of Obama’s presidency and into the next.  

That cannot be a matter of indifference for conservatives, and we should not shrug it off because the Tea Party is sure it will hold all the reins of government in 2017. That was a recipe for disappointment in 2012 and can be again in 2016. Republicans need to show Americans that they are interested in legislating now, in ways that return policymaking powers to Congress. If they do not, they will confirm suspicions that what the GOP is really about is giving wide latitude to the Obama administration while loudly crying foul from the sidelines. Needham’s arguments notwithstanding, it is possible to make use of both approaches: We can play the long game that emphasizes substantive vision while we also pay attention to the everyday, mundane details of governance. That is the nature of politics, and accepting the need for conciliatory politics is at the heart of what it means to be a conservative. Preparing the faithful for the imminent coming of total victory is anything but.

Justus Myers is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and Philip Wallach is a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.

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