Saturday, December 3, 2016

Smarick: How It Could All Go Wrong

Regular readers know that Andy Smarick is on my short list of folks from The Other Side whose writing I generally respect. Smarick is often a thoughtful voice for what I think of as "old school conservatives" or "traditional conservatives" or even "real conservatives." And he's comfortable with nuance. None of which is to say that I don't totally disagree with him on many subjects. But he makes an interesting read.

Case in point. In a recent piece for American Enterprise Institute (Smarick, while nominally associated most with Bellwether Partners, floats freely in the Bellwether-Fordham-AEI nexus), Smarick lays out exactly how the Trump administration could go into weeds on education policy.

He starts by asking "the most important question"--

Are you hoping to advance particular programs or a steady, coherent conservative philosophy?

He considers it an important question in general, and specifically important since the Trumpsters have never articulated a coherent philosophy about anything, conservative or otherwise.

Smarick observes that just going item-by-item can be appealing. It makes news and generates a list of see-how-much-I-love-kids accomplishments. But Smarick sees two problems here:

The first, smaller issue is that education is always highly susceptible to the fad of the week (exactly why the initial response of many seasoned teachers to Common Core was "this too shall pass") or even a whole bunch of fads that don't even fit together (like, say, Common Core Standards and Big Standardized Tests that aren't even aligned to them).

The second issue is the biggie.

An explicit, comprehensive philosophy of governing is extraordinarily important any time we invite Uncle Sam into our schools. That is, absent a clearly articulated view about the federal government’s strengths and weakness, what it should and shouldn’t do, and how it ought to interact with families, schools, districts, and states, an administration is asking for trouble.

The trouble Smarick is talking about is Creeping Federal Overreach. You may think you're going to be a good old small-government, local-control conservative, but once you're in that beautiful DC office and the reins of power are in your hand, the temptation becomes just too great to start making some rules to force Those People to Behave The Way They're Supposed To (e.g. Bush II and No Child Left Behind).

When people are given authority, if they lack a conservative disposition or ideology and aren’t given conservative direction from above, they have a tendency to want to bend the world to their will. This is their big chance to direct others’ behavior, and so they can easily succumb to the temptation to use their fleeting power to its fullest. 

In other words, let's say that the Department of Education is in the hands of a person with a long career of trying to force a new system of education, even (in defiance of the Constitution) working toward the goal of replacing a secular public school system with a Christian system of education. We've had folks who believed that the federal government should throw its weight behind telling schools what to teach, how to measure success, and how schools should be punished for failing. What if we had someone who not only believed all that, but also believed the federal government should throw its weight behind deciding who should or should not get to even run schools, and was even more willing than previous administrations to make the federal government a main player in picking (and rewarding and punishing) winners and losers in the education sphere. Let's say we had that person as Secretary of Education, working for a President with no coherent political philosophy at all.

That would be bad.

Unmoored from conservative principles, they can decide to use the federal government’s substantial power — its bully pulpit, budget, regulatory power, guidance documents — to force policies they like. They can end up as bossy about their preferences as progressives would be about their own. It is instructive that while the Obama administration sought to nationalize its policies on teacher evaluation, standards, and assessments, the Bush administration attempted to do the same on accountability. When an ascendant team doesn’t govern deductively from conservative principles the upshot is predictable: local-led gives way to federal; organic gives way to centrally planned; small gives way to large; longstanding practice and incremental improvements give way to novel ideas and grand schemes.

Smarick goes on to soft-peddle his point. He says the path of the Trump administration is "not yet clear" and I believe that is true if you have vaseline smeared over your eyeballs and your head in a bucket. We have moved now from a conservative-ish neo-liberal President to a liberal-ish neo-liberal President to a corporate narcissist six-year-old's id graceless and clumsy neo-liberal President. Put another way, the weapons of federal over-reach are not going to be put away any time soon; they'll just be pointed at different stuff. We're all still trapped in a dark alley with a self-important mugger; all that is changing is who gets mugged first.

Smarick imagines a world in which Trumps $20 billion choice plan actually works out well, even for progressives. But of course the devil is in the details, and the number of details to date is exactly zero, and given the story so far, I'm expecting that those details are going to carry the devil in on a big comfy chair. Than there's this--

By choosing the talented Betsy DeVos as his nominee to be Secretary of Education, President-elect Trump might have intimated a policy-by-conservative-principles approach. 

Sure. Also, the DeVos choice might intimate that pigs are about to fly out of my butt.

DeVos has devoted most of her adult life and huge chunks of her personal fortune to getting government to support and implement the policies that she wants to see implemented, not just in her own neighborhood and her own state, but in other neighborhoods and states around the country. When she is the department chief and actually has the power that, for decades, she has been trying to buy and cajole, do you think she's going to just let it sit unused?

Here's a conversation that is never going to happen in the DeVos USED.

Assistant Undersecretary of the Department of Silly Titles: Secretary DeVos, a state has declared that they are going to ban vouchers, cut school choice, and appoint a committee to make certain that not one dollar of tax money goes to any sort of religious school.

Secretary DeVos: Well, that's unfortunate, but the state should pursue whatever policy it likes without any interference from us. Do nothing about this. Nothing at all. We're just here to help them implement whatever policies they choose.

Smarick ends by noting that being in power comes with many temptations, and how things go will depend a lot on who is appointed to various positions. This is probably true, given the minimal amount of policy guidance that is likely to trickle down from The Top. Okay, not entirely true-- there do seem to be some philosophical underpinnings like, say, "Some people matter and some people don't." That's probably not going to inform education policy in many useful ways.

This sort of wishful thinking (Conservatives: Trump could turn out to be great) is not confined to any part of the political spectrum (Liberals: Obama is leaving an economy in awesome shape). And I think Smarick's picture of how this all goes south is sound. It's framed as a warning, but I'm afraid it's more of a prediction.

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