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Your editor originally had no intention of writing about the conclusion of today’s move to end 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government’s discretionary operations. In fact, I would rather spend a little more time with my newborn son, Andrew, who has the distinction of being my mini-me. But because Andrew, like all new babies, likes to wake up in the wee hours of the night for his mom to feed him, and then enjoys falling asleep on his my lap before I put him in the crib, I figure I might as well take the time to be a little productive. Just as importantly, this latest sparring match between congressional Republicans and the Obama Administration has plenty of implications for education policy. And reformers must fully understand these issues in order to further advance systemic reform.

wpid-threethoughslogoCertainly American public education was not really affected by the shutdown. After all, on the very day of the shutdown, the U.S. Department of Education still handed out $22 billion in Title 1 dollars that, because of the peculiar budgeting process called forward funding, will not actually be spent until the following fiscal year; the fact that federal dollars make up, on average, nine percent of the $599 billion devoted to the super-clusters that make up public education means that the impact was always going to be less than what bureaucrats and traditionalists want to say it would be. States and districts also had enough National School Lunch Program subsidies to provide poor kids with meals until the end of this month, while Head Start centers serving 19,000 children in the early grades received $10 million school reformer (and Wall Street trader) John Arnold and his wife Laura in order to continue operations for the month.

[In the department of no good deed goes unpunished, the Arnolds ran afoul of traditionalists such as the intellectual charlatan Diane Ravitch, who wrongly tarred them because of Arnold’s earlier employment with the scandal-tarred (and now-defunct) energy giant Enron; Ravitch and others wrongly accused Arnold of being involved in the company’s spectacular and infamous acts of fraudulent accounting related to its busted, Ponzi-like pipeline partnerships when he merely worked for its energy trading operations. But always expect traditionalists to never let facts get in the way of a smear campaign.]

This isn’t to say that the shutdown didn’t have any negative impacts on the education sector. Researchers couldn’t access the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data collection; as with so much of the shutdown, the Obama Administration cleverly chose to take this and other widely-used databases off-line even when it could have kept them in operation (even as other collections, notably the Department of Labor’s database of disclosures by unions such as the American Federation of Teachers, were still publicly accessible if not updated) for political gamesmanship against the House and Senate Republicans whose hapless jeremiad against the Affordable Care Act helped make the shutdown a reality in the first place. But for the most part, the shutdown had greater impact on tourists to Washington, D.C., who couldn’t visit sites on the National Mall because of the Obama Administration’s decision to barricade entry to the parks, than on district and school operations.

Yet the very issues that has led to this partial shutdown — and has marked the overall stalemate at the federal level over other issues — also adversely affects the role the federal government will likely play in education policy for at least the rest of the decade.

The sparring matches among congressional Republicans — especially longtime Beltway players and a new generation of movement conservatives who owe their spots to support from the Tea Party movement that fully emerged after Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008 — over whether there should have been any effort to stop funding for ObamaCare exemplifies the reality that the Republican Party as a whole is still in the midst of internal feuding over its long-term direction. This battle spawning from the dismay of movement conservatives with the presidency of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, whose compassionate conservative agenda and willingness to expand the role of the federal government in areas such as Medicaid made him the best Republican for whom Democrats could ever hope (even if they hate to admit it); the fact that Bush’s presidency ended so miserably and led to Obama’s election, has exacerbated the usual recriminations conservatives and Republicans have any time they don’t win the presidency.

The shutdown once again revealed the Obama Administration's lack of leverage in negotiations with Congress -- and the consequences of its failures on the policymaking front. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.)

The shutdown once again revealed the Obama Administration’s lack of leverage in negotiations with Congress — and the consequences of its failures on the policymaking front. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.)

As with progressives within the Democratic Party, who spent much of the last decade purging the legacy of Bill Clinton (whose centrist tendencies and acquiescence on issues such as welfare reform would make him the best Democrat Republicans ever had), movement conservatives have been doing all they can to purge the Republican Party of any policy ties to the Bush era. But in the process, they have also engaged in senseless grandstanding that gets in the way of smart, thoughtful policymaking that adheres to conservative principles such as restricting the scope of the federal role and holding states and districts accountable for how they spend federal money. The effort of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline to eviscerate No Child, the signature legislation of the Bush era, for example, would return federal education policy to the days when states and districts received education subsidies without being held responsible for providing children with high-quality education. This problem, exacerbated by the threats of activists such as the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks to primary congressmen who smartly diverge from the policies these groups champion, has led congressional Republicans down a senseless path to fight a battle already lost.

As Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist made clear earlier this month in an interview with the Washington Post, the effort to end funding for ObamaCare that led to the shutdown also took attention away from the more-important long-term goal of reducing increases in federal spending. This is an effort at which congressional Republicans largely succeeded thanks to the Budget Control Act and the reductions in spending triggered by the sequestration process the act has put into place. Certainly sequestration is a blunt instrument and no long-term solution for smart decision-making by all at the federal level about addressing the long-term costs of Social Security and other entitlements. But the cuts, along with other decisions made by congressional leaders as a result of the budget stalemate, has at least slowed federal spending down.

Meanwhile the intramural sparring among congressional Republicans over the shutdown, has also highlighted the less-savory consequence of the decision made by House Democrats and Republicans three years ago to end the practice of earmarks, or allowing congressmen to shower subsidies upon favored constituents: The weakening of the role of the house speaker in leading both their own caucus and the legislative process in general. Starting with the revolt in 1910 against the legendary Joseph Cannon by progressives within the congressional Republican caucus in control of the house at the time, house speakers have lost the very privileges — including the power to assign congressmen to (and remove them from) spots on powerful committees such as Appropriations (which divvies up the federal budget) — that allowed them to drive the path of legislation. The ability to grant or deny earmark requests (which became prominent in the 1990s during the speakership of Boehner’s predecessor, Newt Gingrich) was one of the few effective levers speakers had left.

Thanks to the move to end earmarks, Boehner is effectively forced to do the bidding of the Republican caucus — and the new generation of movement conservatives clearly in charge of policymaking in the House. The fact that Boehner, along with other congressional leaders, is associated with the Bush-era policies (including No Child) that these conservatives want to cast aside also hurts his efforts to keep them in line. Add in Obama’s successful re-election — and the perception among movement conservatives that Boehner and other “establishment” Republicans didn’t do enough to derail him during his first term — and suddenly, Boehner’s loss of influence over his caucus is the reason why Kline finally succeeded this past July in gaining passage of his plan to eviscerate No Child, the Student Success Act, after three years of struggle. Along with the divide among between centrist Democrat reformers and traditionalists within Democratic Party ranks, Boehner’s lack of influence is also why No Child has not been reauthorized for the eighth straight year. And Boehner’s inability to keep his caucus in line is why the new generation of movement conservatives in the House, with the help of counterparts in the Senate such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, succeeded in pushing the series of steps last month that led to the shutdown.

Boehner’s otherwise stellar legacy as a congressman, especially in championing the passage of No Child) has been damaged in the aftermath of the shutdown. So have the prospects of Republicans gaining control of the Senate next year (even as gerrymandering in states with Republicans in control of state legislatures has effectively assured the party of control of the federal lower house for at least the next decade).  At the same time, the series of events have exposed the Obama Administration’s inability to shape its own legacy, both in education front where its moves have often garnered bipartisan support, as well as on other policy fronts.

The Obama Administration’s dependence on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to cobble together yet another short-term deal to keep discretionary operations of the federal government open for business is the consequence of bad decisions the administration made during its first term. The decision three years ago to not push for a budget for 2010-2011, a move to which Democrats who controlled all of Congress at the time had acquiesced (even as it was clear that the party would lose control of the federal lower house) gave congressional Republicans the power to both dictate fiscal policy  — especially in their goal of moving away from omnibus budget bills to piecemeal measures that align more-closely to their goal of reducing the size and scope of the federal government — and deny the administration legislative victories that would secure its initiatives. The sequestration-triggered budget cuts put in place by congressional Republicans and Democrats, the administration no longer has the dollars it effectively leverage during the first two years of Obama’s first term to build upon reforms such as Race to the Top.

Ted Cruz

The internal feud between Republicans over the future of the party is exemplified by the battles during the shutdown over efforts by a new generation of conservatives now in Congress such as Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

The shutdown also exposes the Obama Administration’s general deficiencies on the policymaking front. The administration has long had a penchant for using executive orders to achieve short-term policy goals instead of negotiating with congressional leaders to achieve its aims. This has been made clear over the past two years with the Obama Administration’s move to grant waivers 41 states and the District of Columbia that allow them to ignore No Child’s accountability provisions. Because of the administration’s own unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, few congressional Republicans (and even some of Obama’s fellow Democrats) are in no mood to work with it in any meaningful way, especially if the administration’s plans run counter to their own goals. This is why the Obama Administration suffered a blow in July when a Senate Appropriations subcommittee refused to approve the administration’s request to build upon its competitive grant approach it pioneered with Race to the Top by voting down the creation of a new effort focused on overhauling the nation’s high schools — and why its $1 billion budget request for its proposed Race to the Top effort focused on higher education was reduced by 60 percent. And this lack of leverage is why the administration has had to depend on Reid and McConnell to come up with short-term budget deals instead of working directly with congressional leaders, as previous administrations have done.

But the consequences of the Obama Administration’s poor policymaking decisions, which are evident once you beyond public relations efforts such as the refusal by the Department of Defense to pay death benefits for soldiers killed in Afghanistan, extend beyond the shutdown. Because Obama is now a lame-duck president, progressive activists within Democratic Party ranks, annoyed by the administration’s centrist tendencies and failures to fulfill the promises the president made during his run for office five years ago, are now looking to dictate who will be the next Democratic presidential nominee (and Obama’s possible successor), as well as force the administration to back down on any efforts that run counter to their ideals. This effort will likely turn into a purge similar to that undertaken after the Clinton presidency (and currently impacting the Republican Party) after Obama leaves office in 2016 if Democrats don’t retain the White House. This doesn’t bode well for centrist Democrat reformers who now set the terms for education policymaking for two reasons. The first? Because progressive activists count on the financial and political backing of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who have succeeded in co-opting them over the past few years. The other? The ideological opposition of progressives to anything that smacks of involving the private sector , including “neoliberal” concepts touted by centrist Democrats such as charter schools (which are public schools operated by companies and nonprofits).

With the key players in both the White House and Congress beset by feuding, bereft of policymaking acumen, and lacking the political capital or impetus to make smart decisions, stalemates such as the partial shutdowns such as this one will likely be the norm. This extends to the role of the federal government in education policymaking. The protracted debate over reauthorizing No Child has long ago signaled that little will be done to build upon the law’s sensible and effective accountability provisions; the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit and efforts of Kline to gut the law (along with the policy incoherence inherent in the approaches taken by both) has also made clear that nothing more will be accomplished at the federal level in the near-future. For the school reform movement, there is little to be gained from spending more time than necessary on federal education policy other than to beat back traditionalist opposition.

What reformers will have to do is work harder in the nation’s statehouses, where efforts to advance (and beat back) reform will be played out. This shouldn’t be a surprise because states are the battlegrounds from which reform efforts at the federal level are ultimately won or lost. Starting in the 1960s, when the NEA and AFT won passage of laws forcing districts to bargain with them, and continuing with property tax reform efforts in the 1970s, states have played a prominent role in shaping education policy. It was the efforts of southern governors and chambers of commerce in their states near the end of the seventies to improve curricula and standards that helped foster the modern school reform movement, and galvanized action at the federal level starting with the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. The passage of No Child 11 years ago both built upon the reform efforts of states such as Florida and Texas, reaffirmed the roles granted to states by their constitutions to structure public education, and gave reform-minded state leaders the tools needed to beat back traditionalist opposition.

Working statehouses will be especially important in part because of the damage wrecked by the incoherence of the Obama Administration’s own policies on the education front. As seen last month with California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to sign the plan to gut the state’s accountability system contained in Assembly Bill 484, in spite of threats by the Obama Administration to withhold $7.3 billion (as of 2012-2013) in federal funding, the administration’s evisceration of No Child’s has encouraged traditionalists to push for states to go even further by ditching accountability altogether, weakening systemic reform efforts on the ground. Because the waivers further reaffirm the role of states in structuring education without holding them accountable for how they spend federal dollars (or for providing all kids with high-quality teaching and curricula), reformers must build support on the ground to beat back traditionalists. States such as New York have already shown their willingness to bypass the federal government on other matters, taking temporary control of federal landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty in order to keep them open. The shutdown, along with the waiver gambit, will fuel similar actions.

For reformers, advancing reform means embracing an approach similar to that of Wayne Wheeler, the legendary head of the Anti-Saloon League who successfully worked with all comers to pass the 18th Amendment that led to Prohibition. After all, centrist Democrat and conservative Republican reformers know all too well that they cannot count on their respective parties for consistent support. This means Democrat reformers should be as willing to support a Bobby Jindal as they would back an Andrew Cuomo, while Republican reformers should be willing to back Dan Malloy as quickly as they would favor Chris Christie. Part of that work must also include engaging families — especially single-parent households, grandparents, immigrant households, and even social conservative families — who understand the need for systemic reform. This starts with listening closely to those families, as well as addressing the safety and school climate issues that greatly concern them (which are a byproduct of the nation’s education crisis).

The federal shutdown serves as another reminder that progress on federal policy, be it on education or fiscal affairs, may not happen for some time. And reformers must adjust their tactics and strategies accordingly.

Cover photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

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