Monday, March 9, 2015

Bush's Fuzzy Wall

Jeb Bush took to the Washington Post last Friday to try to clarify his education policy ideas. We can probably look forward to many repeats of this process, because Candidate Bush has a powerful need to keep clarifying his education policies until he can find some version of them that isn't hated by voters both inside and outside his party.

His WaPo piece intends to clarify the line on federalism. People in his party hate Common Core, and they hate it at least in part because they see it as federal intrusion on state functions, so it would be useful for Bush III if he could find a way to convince voters that he likes a big, strong wall between the lovely garden of state powers and the big scary snake of federal intrusion.

He's going to need some more clarifying, because this version of the wall is fuzzy and porous.

He starts out with a simple chicken-wire wall foundation, trying to blame the intrusiony part of Common Core Etc on the Obama administration. For those who have followed the Core closely, this will not be particularly convincing, as what the Obama administration gave the Core Creators was pretty much what they asked for. There was never pure, pristine version of the Core somewhere back before Obama got his hands on it. The administration did not pervert CCSS; they fulfilled its every dream.

But Bush III is clear-- "the federal government's role in elementary and secondary education should be limited." That seems like a nice, clear, solid, snake-resistant wall. But then he clarifies what he means.

It should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help. That’s it.

Oops. This is not so much a snake-resistant wall as a special snake door leading to snake tunnel that leads directly to the garden.

We could take a shortcut by simply pointing out that all of these policy ideas are exactly what got the fat federal fingers all over education in the last few years, but let's pretend we're starting from scratch. Why do these three supposedly clear policy divides make a better open door than a closed window?

Transparency. This formulation is stupid. It presumes that schools are ordinarily giant opaque black boxes, mysterious and secret fortresses whose walls no parents' gaze can pierce. Parents sit at home for 180 days, scratching their heads and wondering how their children are doing, too foolish and helpless to gather any information.

But if by "measure up" Bush means "measure their school in comparison to some other school many states away," then there is no way to accomplish that without federal intrusion. There's no way to create such a cross country report card without having the federal government declare what should be taught, when it should be taught, and how the teaching of that material should be measured.

You can't have a national report card without a national curriculum and national testing. Federal intrusion doesn't get much intrudier than that.

Support policies that have a proven record. Proven to do what? Proven to whose satisfaction? As long as the feds are setting the rules for what counts as success, they are (again) setting the curriculum and evaluation agenda for the country.

Make sure states can't ignore students who need extra help. This one assumes ill intent by the states, and that certainly doesn't bode well for the feds stepping back. If we're pre-emptively accusing the states of ignoring some students, then the only way this works is if the feds decide which students need extra help. That means determining which students aren't where they should be, and that can only be done if the feds decide where those students should be, which means, once again, that in order to do this supposedly simple federal task, the feds have to set a curriculum, a scope and sequence, and impose a federal level assessment, and that assessment will mean a federal-level school record for each student. How can the feds say, "Yo, state-- you are not doing right by Chris" unless the feds know exactly how Chris is doing?

What Bush has laid out is a fuzzy out-of-focus picture of a wall that is barely pretending to cover up a giant, neon THIS WAY sign with blinking arrow for every federal snake in the area. There is no way for Bush's Three Little Tasks to be truly accomplished without the federal government taking a central and controlling role in education.

He's going to need to clarify his education policy some more, because this isn't going to soothe anybody.

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