Generally, your Dropout Nation editor pays no attention to either Daily Kos or RedState — and not just because they have nothing worth considering when it comes to the reform of American public education. Whether the issue is education or anything else, neither side represents the best thinking of their respective political ideologies. What they do instead is serve as the Marats and Robespierres for the ideological Left and Right: Overly dedicated to dogma; thoughtlessly adherent to orthodoxy; and inflexible in thought. They would sooner support intellectual and political lightweights unworthy to lead such as Howard Dean and Sarah Palin than anyone who veers slightly off their visions of the true and shining path. At least they don’t own real guillotines.
So it wasn’t surprising when RedState’s Erick Erickson — who has never missed a chance to slag a fellow conservative for being insufficiently adherent– accused Checker Finn and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of being among heretics. Why? Because Finn took aim and fired straight at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s opposition to enacting Common Core standards and improving the Lone Star State’s decent-but-not-great academic curriculum standards (which are highly-rated by Fordham in English, but are lackluster in math). Declaring that Fordham — especially Finn — are faux conservatives, Erickson then declares that “one-size-fits-all” standards would not work better than the state-centered school reform approach Perry has overseen during his tenure.
Now dear readers, you already know that Dropout Nation hasn’t exactly given Fordham’s leading lights a free pass for their sometimes curious approach to reform. It is particularly interesting that Fordham touts the Kissingeresque mishmash they call Reform Realism — which essentially calls for the gutting of accountability and less-expansive federal education policy — even as they tout the creation of a national set of curriculum standards through its embrace of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (which, given the Obama administration’s efforts on behalf of it, represents a soft form of expanding federal education policy). Fordham’s research czar, Mike Petrilli, again tried to pull off this rhetorical trick this past Wednesday during one of the institute’s latest pow-wows. And from where I sit, it’s still not convincing.
But foolish consistency, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared, is the hobgoblin of small minds. And Finn, Petrilli and their gang are not small minds. The essential argument that they can make for what their seemingly contradictory positions — that federal accountability has not worked adequately enough to justify its continuation in current form (because of the regulatory burdens on states, along with their gamesmanship of the law itself), while the acceptance of Common Core by those states is voluntary and could result in more-substantial reform — actually can stand some scrutiny. A substantially flawed argument for sure; the argument that accountability is a failure falls on its face because it has actually worked in exposing the failures of American public education and provided the evidence needed to push for such reforms such as the expansion of charter schools. But it is an argument that a principled conservative — especially those advocating for school reform — can make and still, well, be sufficiently conservative.
Contrary to what Erickson may think, a conservative can argue for limited government overall and still make a strong case for a more-expansive federal role in education. Given the importance of education in sustaining the nation’s economic growth and social fabric, the depths of the nation’s education crisis, and the fact that the federal government spends $55 billion a year (as of 2009) on subsidizing public school systems, a more-comprehensive federal role that advances reform makes sense. (One can argue legitimately that the feds shouldn’t be funding education in the first place; but that discussion has been had and settled decades ago.)
If you think of education in the same manner as infrastructure and public works, it is not only sensible for the feds to push for more-rigorous curricula and better instruction, it is imperative. In fact, it was the great conservative himself, Ronald Reagan, who agreed with this thinking and helped advance the school reform movement three decades ago with the publication of A Nation at Risk; by 1986, some 250 state and local panels had been formed to spur overhaul of American public education. Finn, of course, could argue this better than I, especially since he was a Reagan appointee to the U.S. Department of Education.
Erickson’s other contention — that Perry and his fellow officials in Texas are actually capable of spurring reform on their own and can come up with more-rigorous curriculum standards than those proposed in Common Core standards — would stand up to scrutiny if not for the facts in evidence. If Erickson took a closer look at Perry’s record on education reform, he would have offered a more-thoughtful response than the claptrap he cranked out.
The success Texas has had in improving its education systems has less to do with Perry than with the work done in the previous two decades by his predecessors, Ann Richards and future president George W. Bush. They launched the series of school accountability measures on which federal education policy — most-notably the No Child Left Behind Act — is now based. Since Perry entered the governor’s office a decade ago, that progress has slowed significantly compared to its peer southern states.
While the percentage of fourth-graders overall reading Below Basic proficiency (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) has declined from 41 percent to 35 percent between 1998 and 2009, it doesn’t compare to the 20-point decline in functional illiteracy achieved by Florida, a more-aggressive school reform state, in that same period, or even the 12-point decline in Virginia (whose governors, like Perry in Texas, stood pat for most of that period).
Dig even deeper into the data and Perry’s school reform record (and anti-Common Core positioning) looks even less impressive. Seventy-three percent of Texas’ black male fourth-graders read Below Basic in 2009, a mere 7-point decline from 1998; it is a slower rate of improvement in literacy than Florida’s 28 percent decline (from 81 percent to 53 percent) for the same population of students, and the 19 percent decline in functional illiteracy in Virginia. The 15-percent decline in functional illiteracy among Texas’ Latino male fourth-graders is also lower than the 31-point decline for the same population in Florida.
Perry’s campaign-inspired protestations against federal intervention (and Erickson’s defense of that caterwauling) would make sense if Texas wasn’t taking federal education dollars. In fact, federal dollars account for 10 percent of the Lone Star State’s spending on education, slightly more than the 9 percent national average. When Perry declares publicly that he wants Texas to hand back those dollars, then I’ll buy what he’s selling. Otherwise, it just comes off as more mouthing off for spare votes.
Of course, some centrist Democrats — notably Andy Rotherham — are laughing about this latest round of ideological cleansing. But they should be careful: This week’s Netroots Nation conference is full of so-called progressive Democrats who are more concerned with preserving the privileges of teachers unions (and buy into the ranting of Diane Ravitch) than with improving the educational and economic destinies of America’s poorest children. To the Daily Kos crowd, centrist and liberal Democrat reformers — especially U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama — are insufficiently left-of-center. Watch your backs.