“Less Money, Less Reform” Goes to Washington

By 11/02/2010

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Everyone wants to know what a Republican-controlled House of Representatives will mean for ESEA reauthorization. Here’s my take: it will mean less money, and less reform. And on the whole, that will be a good thing.

There’s little doubt that the GOP will close the spigot of federal spending, including bailout dollars for our schools. This will have a beneficial effect of indicating to superintendents and school boards nationwide that the day of reckoning has arrived; let the de-leveraging begin. The spending bubble is behind us. No more adding staff at a pace outstripping student enrollment; no more sweetheart deals on pensions or health insurance; no more whining about “large” class sizes of 26. It’s time to live within our means.

But Republicans won’t just work to restrain spending; they will also attempt to restrain the federal role in education. There are reasons to be worried about this, as kicking it back to change-averse states and school districts is a questionable course of action. Still, closing the book on the No Child Left Behind/ Race to the Top chapter of federal overreach will mostly serve as a palliative to our schools. Does anyone still believe that Uncle Sam has the capacity or agility to hold 100,000 schools accountable for results? To ensure a “highly qualified” (much less “highly effective”) teacher in every classroom? To right every wrong that dots our education landscape?

The time for “reform realism” has arrived: a national focus on results (a la Common standards) combined with state leadership in terms of getting the job done.

That’s good policy, and it’s also good politics. As I argued last New Year’s Eve, a trimmed down, modest, realistic ESEA is the only kind that could conceivably clear Congress any time soon. That’s still true today. Many reformers will scream: They are rolling back NCLB! That’s OK. It’s time to turn the page.

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