Good for Texas. Good for America?

Deep in the heart of Texas is where some education-policy lessons might best stay.

But they tend not to. Rick Perry’s imminent entry into the 2012 GOP presidential race suggests that, for the second time in less than a dozen years, we could see a Texas governor try to make the federal role in education conform to his own preconceptions and lessons learned in Austin.

That’s what happened in 2001 when Gov. George W. Bush carried with him from Texas the essential elements of policy and practice that (after much fiddling by Congress) became the No Child Left Behind Act.

And something similar could happen again in 2013 should Perry win the Oval Office and endeavor there to implement the conclusions he has reached about education during his dozen years running the Lone Star State.

Besides (and partly due to) its enormousness, Texas is a proud, sometimes arrogant, and seriously self-absorbed place. One need only stand under the immense dome of the state capitol — taller than the one in Washington — and gaze at the six flags depicted in the terrazzo floor. All have flown over Texas. One senses that its current affiliation with the United States is a sort of fling, another dalliance that could one day end.

No surprise that Texas governors can be a bit cocky. Bush took for granted that the standards-based education reforms that had worked pretty well back home, particularly for poor and black and brown kids (as even the RAND Corporation attested back in 2000), would work for America. They entailed standards in core subjects, plenty of testing, reams of (disaggregated) data, lots of transparency regarding school outcomes, and accountability measures tied to those outcomes.

And they had brought gains (primarily at the bottom) that the state’s leaders and educators had reason to be proud of.

There was no reason they shouldn’t work in other states, too, Bush reasoned, and of course there was precedent for Uncle Sam nudging states in that direction, initiatives like the Clinton-era “Goals 2000” and “Improving America’s Schools” legislation.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can see that Bush didn’t fully appreciate how much the tools available to the federal government differ from those wielded by state leaders. That’s the main reason NCLB has been a . . . well, choose your own term, any from “damaging flop” to “less than complete success.” (I’m somewhere in the middle, myself.)

Washington simply has no capacity to compel states and districts to follow the Texas model — or any other model. Yes, it can make them go through the motions, submit plans, and report data. It can dole out and (rarely) withhold money. But it cannot make anyone set rigorous standards, select good tests, establish reasonable “cut scores” (part of the Texas formula involved slowly raising those targets), or successfully intervene in failing schools or districts. Nor can it guarantee decent school choices or competent teachers.

NCLB tried. It tried harder than any federal-education law in history. Its shortcomings are due in large measure to its architects’ failure to distinguish between what a state government in a place like Austin can make happen in K-12 education and what Uncle Sam can bring about.

Governor Perry heads into his presidential quest with a different blind-spot, in some ways the obverse of Bush’s. He is best known in education (and several other domains) for his adamant refusal to let Texas be pushed or pulled at all by Washington or other forces outside the Lone Star borders. That’s why he vehemently refused to seek Race to the Top funding. (Texas’s share could have been $700 million.) About RTTT he said: “We would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special-interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.”

But Uncle Sam isn’t the only education scarecrow in Perry’s wheat field. Consider the “Common Core” standards for reading and math. Several months before the draft product of that initiative was even ready for inspection, he declared that that “I will not commit Texas taxpayers to . . . the adoption of unproven, cost-prohibitive national standards and tests.”

Along with Virginia, Texas is now the most prominent refusenik in the Common Core effort. Which is its right and not necessarily a bad decision, for Texas’s own standards are good, at least in English and (recently) in math, and it has spent serious money implementing them. (Having a strong economy helps a bunch — and made it easier to shun RTTT.) In recent years, however, school outcomes in the Lone Star State have flattened. Texas no longer ranks among the strongest states in boosting minority-student scores — or white scores, for that matter. Its overall performance (gauged by the National Assessment of Education Progress) resembles treadmill-running.

One must ask, too, whether Perry’s Texas experience — plus his towering self-assuredness — would blind him to the droopy reality of more typical states and the prodding and political cover they might need from outside if they’re ever to pull up their education socks.

Texas is anomalous in so many ways: a vast, growing, and relatively prosperous place with a sophisticated state education apparatus and not much by way of labor unions. Perry is plainly a “states’ rights” Republican and that may be what Americans want in the Oval Office. (Some may wonder, however, why a guy who seems to abhor just about everything about Washington would want to move there!) But will pulling way back on federal efforts to reform education — most likely by putting the money on a stump and letting states do whatever they like with it — benefit the other 49? How about gravely ill jurisdictions like Ohio and Michigan where Uncle Sam might help reformers duke it out with entrenched unions? Or seriously poor places like Mississippi and Alabama, which may need some outside bucks to leverage change? Or educationally inert states like Nebraska and South Dakota that may just need a kick in the pants?

Yes, one can pledge allegiance to the 10th Amendment and declare that such challenges are the states’ problems to solve if they want to and can. But is that the best thing in the 21st century for a big, modern country that is being outpaced in education (and economic growth) by nations around the planet? And is it the best thing for 55 million kids, many of whom today face dim futures that could be brightened by a better education? Few deny that the federal role in K-12 schooling needs major surgery. But with a deft scalpel, not a cleaver. If Perry brings only a Texas chainsaw to the task, it could turn out that projecting one more set of Lone Star precedents upon all of American education would be another mistake.

— Chester E. Finn Jr.

(This post also appears on National Review Online.)

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