I recall working with Margaret Spellings after the 2000 election to begin the transition work in education before President Bush took office. Several of us had been active in helping the President when he was promoting and implementing effective education policies as governor of Texas. As the inauguration neared, we had ambitious plans to take those and other policies from the campaign to the national level.
We were blessed that so many different groups had an interest and were willing to work with us in a constructive spirit to effect improvement. As divisive as the campaign had been, especially at the end, there was a readiness to come together.
Both sides in Congress had pushed positions, but not to conclusion, in the previous Congress. Business, civic, educator, and policy groups were involved and generally ready to get to work.
I don’t want to over-romanticize the No Child Left Behind Act or its accomplishments. But I do believe that there was a lot of cooperation and relative harmony in its construction. Further, it had the salutary effect of drawing out some of the best contemporary policy thinking as well as incorporating many of the important views of a broad cross-section of interests. Finally, and importantly, in contrast to most of the very few bipartisan achievements we’ve had since, it was a bold, ambitious move that pressed to make a significant difference.
Was it perfect? Hardly. It had problems, and its implementation in the field left a lot to be desired. But there is no doubt that the accountability movement of which NCLB was a key element made a clear and positive impact in advancing student achievement, especially for disadvantaged students.
I see the current scene in a much less favorable light. There was virtually no attention to education policy in the recent campaign. The little discussion that took place seemed mostly shallow and incoherent. This is not to say that all the ideas or the people touting them were bad. To the contrary, some were good. But the lack of a strong foundation for action and the lack of a readiness for consensus building around it likely mean that little forward motion should be expected.
Some will say that’s the whole idea: action shouldn’t come from the federal level. But both candidates and all interested parties argue that education matters and something should be done about it. My point fundamentally is this: I don’t see much prospect of anything serious being done, at least in the near term, at any level.
Let’s analyze my hypothesis by looking at the various major current players and their positions.
Shall we begin with the educator unions? They got clobbered. They put a lot into the Clinton campaign and Democratic candidates all over the country. Losses everywhere. This likely means that as to their special issues, mainly union matters, programs, and spending, they’re in terrible shape. The only place they remain strong, and it’s because of positions they share with other interest groups, is in their basic opposition to reform and accountability.
What about education reformers? Their position seems to have weakened, too. The Democratic reformers have lost further ground against the unions, such as in the charter election in Massachusetts. Republican reformers have become a rare breed altogether.
And choice advocates? The good news is that there were a few choice victories in the states, and a pro-choice President was elected, along with a Republican Congress. Will there be substantially more action on the choice front as a result? Maybe. But, if history is a guide, many of the other groups who lose ground as to their own agendas, largely around programs and funding, will turn their energy to defeating choice measures.
So, could it be that we’re stuck in a quagmire where no agenda moves forward? By the way, this inertia appears to be setting in at the state level as well, though that was supposed to be the new locus of action.
What makes this predicament even worse is that many of the forces that pushed action in the late 90s and the 2000s appear to be retreating from the field. I don’t see the same vigor in the business community. The civil rights community involvement seems to have weakened, too, though some very good souls soldier on.
At the end of the day, we may end up with the default policy of less reform, less accountability, and less support.
I hope I’m wrong. This is indeed a worrisome brew.