Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Balancing Act

Conservatives weigh means against ends as liberal opinion-makers embrace teacher accountability and school choice

The Obama administration’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top, has produced genuine headline news: The Democrats, usually seen kowtowing to organized labor’s demands, for once are standing up to a powerful union constituency. The Race to the Top grant competition would remunerate states for using students’ test scores in teacher evaluations, a practice the teachers unions have fought for years. A number of conservative reformers are backing the measure, but Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican, recently an­nounced that his state would not participate in Race to the Top. What’s the catch?

The situation is reminiscent of another time Democrats stood up to organized labor: in the early 1990s, when Bill Clin­ton backed passage of the North Ameri­can Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) over the objections of the unions. In both cases, the fight between the Democratic party and its union backers dominated the media’s coverage. But then as now, a different and more interesting question preoccupied conservatives: Does the policy in question cede too much local power to a national or transnational authority?

At the heart of the question is a debate over means and ends. Not many conserva­tives in the 1990s argued, as the unions did, that NAFTA would result in the loss of tens of thousands of American jobs. Nor do many conservatives today side with the teachers unions in support of rules that make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent educators. In each case, moun­tains of empirical evidence slowly persuaded liberal elites and Democratic reformers to agree at least partially with conservatives that a certain end — free trade and teacher accountability, respectively — was worth pursuing.

By 1993, it was no longer plausible to argue that free trade was on balance deleterious to a nation’s prosperity. Econo­mists across the political spectrum agreed then, and still do, that removing trade barriers between two countries allows each to increase its total output and thereby grow richer. The only intellectually defensible way to argue against free trade is to make the debate about something other than wealth, such as equality, labor rules, or environmental standards. In the NAFTA debate, accordingly, op­ponents argued that U.S. companies would move jobs requiring fewer skills to Mexico, weakening the power of unions to bid up the price of unskilled labor and causing the gap between rich and poor to widen.

But liberal opinion-makers were not persuaded that the country should sacrifice its overall prosperity to preserve union clout. NAFTA supporter Michael Kinsley, then of The New Republic, zeroed in on the opposition’s advantage in the debate when he wrote that “the person who will get a job because of NAFTA isn’t even aware of it yet; the person who may lose a job because of NAFTA is all too aware.” News­week admonished Americans to “beware the new protectionist preachings. Trade is good for you.” And the most influential liberal in the country, Bill Clinton, supported NAFTA.

It is equally difficult to argue now that teacher quality and student test scores are not correlated. Empirical studies from groups such as the New Teacher Project, Teach for America, and the Brookings Institution have demonstrated that teachers matter, and that test scores are a reliably accurate tool for measuring how much they matter. A Brookings study of Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 concluded that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.”

As in the debate over free trade, liberal journalists and policymakers are in­creasingly embracing the evidence. I first learned of the Brookings study from a Steven Brill article in The New Yorker that absolutely eviscerated New York’s United Federation of Teachers for blocking re­forms that would make it easier for schools to use tests in teacher evaluations. Amanda Ripley of The Atlantic recently wrote about Teach for America’s groundbreaking efforts to track test-score data, link it to each of the organization’s teachers, and use it to assess their effectiveness. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, wrote a column in January praising Randi Weingarten, president of the Amer­i­can Federation of Teachers, for her grudging acceptance of the notion that standardized test scores should be part of the evaluation process. (The National Education Association, AFT’s much larger cousin, remains opposed.)

#page#In large part, these journalists are following the administration’s lead. Obama’s appointment of former Chicago public-schools CEO Arne Duncan to lead the Department of Education was viewed by many conservatives as a decent pick, based on Duncan’s advocacy of teacher accountability and charter schools. Race to the Top reflects Duncan’s support for these concepts: States with laws prohibiting the use of test scores in teacher evaluations are not eligible to compete for the $4.3 billion in grant money available under the program, and other eligibility requirements encourage states to lift caps on charter schools. In general, states make themselves more attractive applicants the farther they move in the directions of accountability and choice.

This is not to say that Obama has been great, or even good, on education. To the dismay of conservatives and inner-city Washington parents, he signed a bill that stripped the District of Columbia’s school-voucher program of its funding. He supports a bill that would effectively nationalize the provision of student loans. And one of his appointments to the Department of Education, Kevin Jennings, founded a group that advocated the inclusion of gay-and-lesbian-themed literature on school reading lists, including books that contain graphic descriptions of sex acts between minors and adults.

For these reasons alone, conservatives would be right to approach any of this administration’s education initiatives with a profound skepticism. But conservative objections to Race to the Top go beyond Obama himself. Many on the right (in­cluding National Review’s editors) opposed President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act on the grounds that conservatives should fight any bill that entrenches the federal role in education — even if, in theory, it would put the government to work toward laudable ends. Governor Perry reflected this point of view in announcing that Texas would not apply for Race to the Top funds: “Our state and our communities must reserve the right to decide how we educate our children, and not surrender control to the federal bureaucracy.”

Few remember now, but similar sovereignty concerns bedeviled some conserva­tives when Bill Clinton, in an effort to make NAFTA more palatable to union interests and environmentalists, negotiated side agreements on labor and the environment to placate them. Conservatives worried that these deals would create panels with authority to recommend sanctions and other measures to compel compliance.

Though the sovereignty concerns were not without merit, those powers of punishment have proven to be a net benefit in the enforcement of U.S. trade agreements. Consider the World Trade Organization (WTO). One of the best things about the WTO is that it presents a solution to the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. The Bush administration’s decision to levy tariffs on imported steel imposed a tax on steel consumers for the benefit of a few domestic steel companies. The WTO ruled against the U.S. and authorized the EU to levy retaliatory sanctions, thus concentrating the cost of the tariffs on other industries, which were better organized than steel consu­mers and better able to fight back. Under pressure, Bush relented and repealed the tariffs.

Race to the Top seeks to address the same problem, using a carrot instead of a stick. Tenure rules and caps on char­ter schools benefit a powerful and well-organized special-interest group at the expense of unorganized taxpayers and parents. But state governments, going broke and desperate for federal funds, have already responded to Race to the Top’s incentive structure. So far, eleven states have amended or repealed bad laws to make themselves more competitive candidates for the money, despite union opposition.

Conservatives have legitimate concerns about delegating power over education to the federal government. But state governments have their own flaws, which a little delegated power can mitigate. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s hard to say right now whether Race to the Top tilts too far in the direction of centralized decision-making. But at least conservatives can take heart that the tide of elite opinion is turning against the teachers unions — and in favor of accountability and choice.

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