Friday, May 9, 2014

Marc Tucker's Federalism

Marc Tucker is the author of the infamous "Dear Hillary" letter which has earned him a reputation in conservative circles as an architect of soviet-style centrally-controlled school systems. He's president and founder of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a group that helped create the New Standards Project in 1992 (the great grandaddy of current Reformy Status Quo). NCEE also has one of the creepiest pictures of Arne Duncan ever on its website.

NCEE's basic theory is that there are super-duper awesome education systems out there in the world, and the key to improving US education is to unlock the secret of powerhouses like Shanghai and Estonia. And what they seem to conclude is that it takes a heaping helping of federal involvement.

Recently Tucker took to his blogging platform to discuss the federal role in state education.

He opens with a bit of history. No Child Left Behind, he notes, was an "abrupt departure from more than two centuries of practice" that "had its origins in Congressional frustration." Congress had been throwing money at poor kids for decades and getting not so much as a whimper for its buck.

NCLB was an announcement that henceforth the Congress expected value for its money; it was going to hold the faculty of the public schools that received federal education funds accountable for doing whatever it took to improve the achievement of disadvantaged children.

The Big New Idea in NCLB was that states would face accountability that made the feds back-seat drivers on decisions about spending education money, and it introduced the big federal stick-- if you can't prove that you raised test scores for all your subgroups, we are going to fire your ass.

Having set the context, Tucker identifies the core issue-- the need to balance the federal government's interest in "making sure that the money it gives to schools produces results" with the states' interest in holding onto their constitutional right to determine their own educational policies.

Tucker has an idea about how to find that balance. Short answer: dump a ton of bricks on the federal side of the scale.

Okay-- I'm paraphrasing. Here's what Tucker actually argues.

Saying that the feds have a right/responsibility/interest in seeing how their money is spent is, in terms of arguing federalism, chump change. Tucker builds the foundation of his argument out of three big chunks of concrete:

1) The US has an interest in creating an education system that makes us economically internationally competitive
2) We only qualify as competitive if our ed system measures in the top 10%
3) That means the PISA test, because it's awesome

Having ante'd up, Tucker now goes all in:

...we can no longer say that the failure of any state to educate its students well is a problem only for that state.  It is a problem for the United States, for all the states.  The states have grown far too interdependent and personal mobility is far too great to pretend that what one state does about education does not matter to the people of the United States.  If a state or region fails to educate its people well, there will be great costs to other states, in lost productivity and competitiveness and increased transfer payment costs.  We are in that sense among others, one country.  But there are many ways to successfully run a state education system.  The idea of the states constituting a laboratory of democracy was a good one.

Got that? Letting states function independently was a fun experiment, but it's time to grow up and move past that whole thing.

Tucker's argument is breathtaking. I would challenge you to name any economic or social sector, private or public, that could not be subordinated to the federal government using Tucker's argument. Under Tucker's argument, states could be allowed some autonomy, such as picking their own state flag, state bird, state fungus. Everything else must be regulated and controlled by the federal government.

Against that staggeringly massive background of federal power, Tucker's specific proposal for education seems like small potatoes, but it's worth looking at.

Congress should set a cut score for states on the PISA (and it ought to be the top 10%, but Tucker allows the Congress might settle for less if they wanted to be stupid). States will take the PISA. As long as they make the cut score, they can have (some) control of their educational systems. If they fall below the cut score, the feds get to make all the rules for them.

So we "balance" state and federal interests. States can either serve federal interests voluntarily, or they can be forced to serve federal interests. When my son was a teenager, I used a similar system-- "You can do it my way, or you can do it my way." Didn't work all that well for me, either.

I don't know if this is how we turn US education into a winner; I suspect it is how we can turn moderates into libertarians.

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