Only School Choice Will Keep Them Honest

The Obama administration has just announced a major new education policy initiative that’s discombobulating two decades’ worth of education politics. As the twenty-year run of the great school accountability movement -- which I supported and still remember with more affection than regret -- grinds to a halt, I think two lessons are clear: until parents can choose their schools, no other type of school reform will work; and a critical mass of people on the political left are realizing that.

Although school accountability was always primarily a state and local movement, most people associate it primarily with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. For years, I’ve kinda-sorta defended NCLB using basically the following argument: I’d rather have the federal government throw a bunch of money at the education blob and extract at least one useful concession from it in exchange than have it throw a bunch of money at the education blob and not get anything useful in exchange. I think just having the requirement that all students be tested and the results for every school be published (along with a bunch of other data that used to be much more difficult to collect) does an enormous amount of good just by creating transparency and enabling better statistical research on what works, even though the “accountability” aspect of the law is more or less a sham.

And for years, NCLB critics have come back at me with basically this argument: We had to greatly increase the amount of money we throw at the blob in order to get that concession you like so much. It’s not worth it. Useful as the test data may be, we’d have been better off without them.

Well, be careful what you wish for. The Obama administration has just announced -- almost in so many words -- that it’s going to go through NCLB and rip out everything the blob doesn’t like.

There’s still some chance that the testing may be preserved even as the “accountability” provisions are dropped. But I’m not optimistic. It would just be too easy for them to gut the testing and pay no political price for doing so. They don’t even have to openly stop the tests; they just have to stop requiring every student to take them. Once you do that, the results are worthless.

Now, do you think that when the testing requirements and other things the blob finds odious are removed, the amount of money the feds throw at the blob every year will go down?

Although federal education spending is still only a small portion of the whole school budget, NCLB did increase it pretty sizably. It did that because the blob wailed and howled that it couldn’t possibly live up to NCLB’s supposedly burdensome requirements without lots of new money. But when the requirements are gone, will the spending levels be reduced?

The accountability testing movement accomplished a lot of good in the 1990s. If you look outside the Beltway to states and cities, you’ll see why in 2001 people like me thought NCLB would end up doing a lot more good than it actually did. NCLB was drawing inspiration from state and local reforms that had really worked. In places like Florida, where test-based accountability systems were well implemented and the politicians were willing to stand up to the blob, they got great results.

But even at the state and local level, at this point we more or less have to pronounce the accountability movement as a whole to be yesterday’s news. I don’t think anyone in any legislature in the country is proposing any serious new reforms based on testing.

What went wrong? Some will blame NCLB, and there’s something to that. With a federal “accountability” regime in place, political capital to support state and local accountability reforms was reduced.

But I now think accountability was always going to stall out anyway. Not because it’s a bad reform in itself; I still think it’s a good idea when it’s designed right. However, there’s an underlying political problem when looking past the short run to the long run.

Voters can only pay attention to any given issue for a short period. That’s just the nature of politics: people have other things going on in their lives and they can’t spend their whole lives policing the school system (or any other area of government activity).

So school reformers have to play a short-run game. They have to wait until circumstances create momentum for reform and then seize it and get their reforms passed before the moment passes.

But the education blob is playing a long game. They can afford to lose a legislative battle against something like testing. Because in a few years, or at most a decade, the political coalition that made rigorous reform possible will have faded into the background. If they just lie low, before long the reformers’ moment will pass and the field will be clear. They’ll be able to make their move, subverting whatever reform you enacted so that it becomes toothless -- or worse, it serves their agenda, not yours.

The only answer I can see is school choice. Voters can’t be paying attention to education policy forever, but parents never lose interest in looking after their children’s education. Once parents can choose schools, the schools can’t take their students for granted. They have to shape up or watch their students ship out.

That’s why school choice has such an amazing track record of improving public schools. It puts parents in charge.