Welcome to a New Era of Restraint

What do Tuesday’s election results portend for education? After much palaver in many quarters, I conclude that it’s pretty simple: less money, and less reform from Washington. More responsibility shouldered by states and, perhaps, districts. And that equation isn’t as bad as it may sound.

There’s little doubt that a Republican-controlled House will close the federal-spending spigot, including bailout dollars for schools and teachers. It’s true that, if history is any guide, and if President Obama has his way, we’re unlikely to see any cuts to the ongoing federal education investment—which has itself increased considerably in recent years. But the days of $100 billion infusions (as in last year’s stimulus) or even $10 billion infusions (as in this year’s edu-jobs bill) are behind us. Help isn’t coming from the states, either. Most are broke; some face huge deficits and—with close to two-thirds of governor’s offices and thirty legislatures in GOP hands—they are utterly unlikely to raise taxes to fend off the impending funding cliff.

The tough-love message to superintendents and school boards nationwide should be clear: The day of reckoning has arrived; let the de-leveraging begin. The spending bubble is over. No more adding staff at a pace that outstrips student enrollment; no more sweetheart deals on pensions or health insurance; no more whining about “large” class sizes of twenty-five. It’s time to live within our means.

But Republicans won’t just work to constrain education spending; they will also attempt to refashion the federal role itself. There are reasons to be worried about this, as kicking it back to change-averse states and school districts brings its own complications. Still, the benefits of closing the book on the No Child Left Behind/ Race to the Top chapter of federal overreach outweigh the risks. Does anyone still believe that Uncle Sam has the capacity or precision 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 the education landscape?

You don’t have to be Diane Ravitch to believe that federal education policy has veered off course in recent years. The 1990s energy around holding schools accountable for results—while simultaneously cutting the strings that held them back—has morphed into an enthusiasm for prescription and regulation of the sort that reformers once decried. Race to the Top, for example, wasn’t satisfied with rewarding states that already had a track record of boosting pupil learning. Instead, it lavished money on jurisdictions willing to pledge themselves to a set of reforms that reflected the regnant progressive orthodoxy, circa 2009. These reforms are basically hypotheses—if you do x on teacher quality, you might get y in terms of student learning—but the focus certainly wasn’t on results per se. It was, in fact, on rules, process, promises, and money.

Ironically, the same Administration that widened federal authority in many new directions also gave us a clear roadmap for reining it in: its “blueprint” for ESEA reauthorization. To be sure, plenty of impulses to micromanage the schools are still apparent. But the Obama/Duncan call to scrap federal accountability for the vast majority of American schools would begin to take us back from the edge. Arne Duncan’s “tight-loose” rhetoric (which, let’s admit, hasn’t often been followed by action)—tight on results, loose on means—is exactly the right mantra. (Two years ago, we started calling this “Reform Realism.”) And it’s one that ought to gain support from limited-government Republicans and pro-union Democrats alike. Or so we hope. If, that is, they can agree on anything at all in the months between now and November 2012.

Now that the vast majority of states have signed onto the Common Core standards and related assessments, the feds should empower them to figure out how to reach those standards as they see fit. Provide some dollars (via Title I mostly), cut the strings, and get out of the way.

Many reformers will scream: They are rolling back NCLB! We are moving backwards! Let them bicker; it’s time to turn the page. And maybe get something done. Maybe even something worth doing.

This piece originally appeared in this week’s Education Gadfly.

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