Real Autonomy, Real Accountability: Pacts Americana

We had an idea.

It started with two really depressing facts. NCLB hadn’t worked. But the pre-NCLB era hadn’t worked either–that’s why we got NCLB, for goodness sake.

But instead of obsessing about the weakness of both (we and everyone else had done plenty of that already), we started thinking about the strengths of both. Before NCLB, states and their districts and schools had lots of flexibility. They could develop policies and practices that fit local needs, and they could change courses swiftly when things went wrong. Education leaders were in charge of their standards, tests, and accountability systems, so they felt a sense of ownership over their state’s system of public education.

In the NCLB era, we got an increased focus on student achievement. We were able to track the performance of all kids, and we were assured of meaningful school and district interventions when students were falling behind. We also enjoyed an unprecedented increase in accountability for billions in federal taxpayer funds.

Our question became: Is it possible to marry the best of both eras? We started sketching something out.

We eventually hit upon what turned out to be The Big Question–the one that ultimately brought about “Pacts Americana,” the report we’re releasing today: Does the education world have some kind of time-tested system–something could be brought to bear on ESEA reauthorization–for combining real accountability with real autonomy?

Yes, we realized. That’s precisely what chartering is all about.

So the idea was pretty simple. We–Chad Aldeman, Kelly Robson, and I–were going to figure out how to use the performance-contract approach to re-envision ESEA.

States clearly have lots and lots and lots at stake in this deal. They know their communities far better than anyone at the U.S. Department of Education. They provide the lion’s share of education funding. They are responsible for everything from teacher-certification, seat-time, and graduation requirements to rules on facilities, transportation, and tenure. And they are the ones that actually create the districts that actually run schools.

But Uncle Sam has skin in this game, too, for example $15 billion in Title I annually. We also can’t ignore that he was invited into this work 50 years ago because of the unmet needs of America’s most underserved kids. And we can’t ignore that he was told by Congress to expand his role in 2002 largely because of the continued needs of those very same kids.

We also soon realized that this new kind of deal had to be between the federal government and states. Period. There had to be two partners. NCLB had gotten this all wrong. The federal government had policies for state agencies, various rules related to districts, requirements for schools.

State constitutions make state governments the responsible agents for K-12 education. State governments get to decide how to live up to that obligation. That’s why California is the defendant in the Vergara tenure case and why New Jersey is the defendant in the Abbott funding cases. So true autonomy and respect for states means Uncle Sam works with and through states.

The final piece of our philosophical puzzle was the trickiest because it presented a challenge to our charter analogy. In the charter-school world, a nonprofit needs the state’s permission to set up a public school. A nonprofit can’t just do that on its own. So a key element of the charter bargain is the state’s handing off an essential power.

But the federal government doesn’t bequeath to states the right have public education systems. States don’t need Uncle Sam’s permission. In fact, legally, states must make sure their kids get educated because of provisions in their state constitutions. In our minds, that meant we had to underscore the right of states to say, “no thanks” to the deal and go their own way without federal accountability rules or the money that goes with it.

I really hope you give the report a look to see what we came up with.

OK, here’s a just little more to whet your appetite. The negotiated performance contract would focus exclusively on outcomes. No inputs. That means no federally mandated school classifications, no federally prescribed district interventions, no HQT.

The deal would focus on students, not schools or districts. Why? Because states are responsible for student learning; states create those other things, and states could uncreate them or create new things. Uncle Sam’s role isn’t to tell how states to do their business; his place here is to focus on results.

The last thing I’ll mention is that we spend a chunk of the report recounting the development of accountability in ESEA. We go back to RFK’s misgivings in 1965 about the efficacy of the new law if it were just money and no accountability. We describe how those concerns were realized and how the Congresses and presidents since have worked to solve that problem. Though much of the report focuses on the state-autonomy part of the bargain, this section tries to remind the reader that increased accountability was a 35-year cause. Yes, NCLB over-reached. But let’s not over-correct that mistake.

We hope our report and this new approach is a positive contribution to this debate and helps–at long last–to get this very, very overdue law rewritten.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Ahead of the Heard

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