Today, as congressional Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee draw up their first bill addressing federal education policy — which will end funding for 43 small programs that add up to mere rounding errors in federal appropriations for spending — it’s a good time to consider why they, along with their head honcho, John Kline (R-MN), are so resolute on trimming back federal education policy and gutting the accountability provisions contained in the No Child Left Behind Act. Principle can be a driving force in supporting or opposing a position. But just as often, it is about the politics.
One must first remember that congressional Republicans are looking at political calculus. Any effort to embrace President Barack Obama’s vision of school reform means giving him a substantial victory that he can use in winning a second term. For congressional Republicans, who are looking to take full control of Congress and the presidency next year, this is a critical time to both offer a compelling alternative vision of the role the federal government should play in all aspects of life — including education policy — and a chance to weaken Obama’s already feeble overall political standing. Congressional Republicans may not be able to stop the president from scoring national security victories such as this month’s assassination of Osama Bin Laden. But they can keep him from making any progress on the domestic front.
One must also remember that the opposition among some congressional Republicans to No Child is really about tossing out babies with the bathwater. There is still backlash among movement conservatives among the Republican activist ranks to the administration of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. As Bill Clinton turned out to be the best Democrat Republicans ever had, George W. was the same for Democrats. Although Bush did cut taxes moderately during his tenure, he also began the latest spate of runaway federal spending — including the bailouts of the financial services and automotive sectors — and interventionist foreign policy efforts (Afghanistan and the Iraq War) that cost Republicans full control of Congress in 2006 and led to Obama’s election two years later. For the movement types, Bush and Beltway Republicans essentially betrayed conservative principles of fiscal restraint and reduction of the size of government. And while they may support school reform (and even embrace the underlying principles of No Child), the law is just another part of a sordid legacy of which they want to rid the nation and the GOP ranks. Congressional Republicans are already getting flack from movement types for not moving more aggressively on budget-cutting. So it’s better to avoid discussing No Child — or better yet, offer to just gut it altogether (even if that effort won’t fly) — than pursue reauthorization along the lines envisioned by standards and accountability activists, Common Core supporters, and centrist and progressive Democrat reformers.
These two realities, along with the historic reality that Republicans and conservatives have been more than willing to expand federal education policy when it suits them (a fact that American Enterprise Institute education guru Rick Hess failed to consider last week in his scolding of school reformers over their interactions with Kline and the gang), should be kept in mind. Why? Because of what Kline and his counterparts are not proposing to do.
For example, congressional Republicans aren’t attempting to substantially reduce the $11 billion spent by the feds to subsidize school district special education programs or offering to substantially revamp it in the form of block grants to states that would allow them to act on their own. If anything, Kline has made it clear that he wants to increase spending for special ed without any regard for how those dollars actually perpetuate the nation’s education crisis. Kline can easily see the consequences in his own district in suburban Minneapolis: Seven percent of all students in the South Washington County district, for example, are labeled special ed cases; this includes 15 percent of the black males attending the school; most have “specific learning disability” which can mean dyslexia or other issues that really don’t require special ed participation.
Kline should be asking serious questions about the need for special education funding in its current form. After all, special ed accounts for 21 percent of all school spending. While the percentage of special ed students in some disability categories is in decline (a point made by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its latest report), there are still far too many kids overdiagnosed as special ed cases when the real problem lies with literacy. But he isn’t. Neither are his fellow congressional Republicans on the committee. And that speaks loudly about their intentions.
Kline’s opposition to the competitive grant model embraced by the Obama administration through the Race to the Top effort is also telling. From any conservative perspective, it makes sense to require states and districts to actually overhaul their public education systems in exchange for funding. Same is true of embracing No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress measures. If taxpayers are going to hand over money, those receiving it should be held accountable for it. As in the case of special ed, the willingness to simply ditch accountability and just go back to a system in which states and districts profligately spend dollars and condemn the lives of 150 children a day also speaks clearly of intent.
This isn’t to say there isn’t principle involved in any of this. Conservative and libertarian-leaning Republicans are traditionally skeptical, in fact, hostile, to the federal role in education policy. And in many cases, for good reason. They can rightly point out that the for most of the past five decades, the federal government has simply ladled out money to states and districts and have gotten little in return. But let’s not forget that politics are as much a part of the battle over reforming American public education as principle.