Washington Micro-Managers, There You Go Again

After months of inactivity on Capitol Hill, D.C. is humming today as the Omnibus Appropriations bill rushes toward completion. It’s not a pretty picture to watch, particularly as the supposedly reform-friendly Obama Administration sells its soul in order to keep its beloved Race to the Top program alive. (OK, “sells its soul” might be going too far, but I understand that it signed off on a policy for the Teacher Incentive Fund grant that gives unions veto power over new merit pay experiments. What’s up with that?)

Less blatant, but just as problematic, is the Administration’s support for a provision to be attached to funding for the Charter Schools Program. The impulse is right: it seeks to ensure that charter school authorizers–the entities that oversee charters and are supposed to shut them down if they are low-performing–are themselves held accountable. Lord knows states need to address this issue, all the more so after Fordham’s recent report demonstrated how few low-performing charter schools are closed for poor outcomes.

But federal policy is littered with “right impulses”–to improve teacher quality, to create strong accountability systems, to transform failing schools. But good intentions rarely lead to real solutions because Washington is too far from the real action in the schools to avoid all manner of unintended consequences.

So, if this language goes through, to receive Charter School Program funds, states will now need to “provide for intervention, revocation, or closure of the public chartering agencies and charter schools that fail to meet…standards and procedures.” That sounds pretty good. We’ve successfully pushed for such language in Ohio. The problem is that only three states currently meet this requirement, meaning most of the country will become instantly ineligible for charter-school start-up funds. Oops.

Here’s my wish for the Washington policy crowd this holiday season: greater humility and patience, so that good ideas (such as this one) can be given a chance to blossom at the state level rather than be screwed up by over-eager feds.

-Mike Petrilli

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