A New “Washington Consensus” is Born

A decade ago, when federal lawmakers on the left and right came together to design and then enact No Child Left Behind, it solidified what was already a “Washington Consensus” in education policy. Its focus was on narrowing racial achievement gaps, its key strategy was federally enforced accountability, and its mantra was “no excuses.”

Today, that consensus is in tatters, what with the testing backlash, the rediscovery of poverty as a major obstacle to achievement, and the Tea Party’s desire to limit Uncle Sam’s authority over the nation’s schools. For these reasons and more, most pundits have assumed that, for the foreseeable future, ESEA reauthorization is impossible. No path to renewal has been made clear.

Perhaps until now. This week has witnessed the emergence of a new Washington Consensus, apparent in President Obama’s education-obsessed State of the Union address, a bipartisan conference call with key Senate leaders, and a supportive column by the country’s most widely read conservative.

The seeds of this consensus could be spotted in the Administration’s ESEA blueprint, release last spring, and in the outline of “reform realism” that we at the Fordham Institute released more than two years ago. This reform realism embraces a “tight-loose” approach to federal policymaking: Let’s be clearer about what we expect students to know and be able to do (via the Common Core State Standards Initiative) while showing more flexibility in how states and districts get there (especially via scaled-back federal oversight of accountability measures). It trades a “tough love” approach to the nation’s worst schools for a “trust but verify” attitude toward all the others.

There are downsides to this formulation. It opens the door to states “leaving children behind,” as they might look the other way when, say, suburban schools fail to effectively educate their minority kids. (That’s why Kati Haycock at Education Trust is pressing against it.) And it doesn’t go far enough to appease some conservatives, who demand nothing short of a block grant to the states. (That’s the line the Heritage Foundation continues to sell.)

Yet between those two extremes is an emerging center that is both broad and very real, at least along Pennsylvania Avenue, if not totally within the think tanks and advocacy groups. For the “new members” of Congress (not to mention the old), here’s some advice from George Will (the aforementioned influential columnist): You might “decide that the changes Duncan proposes—on balance, greater state flexibility in meeting national goals—make him the Obama administration’s redeeming feature.”

—Mike Petrilli

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