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Thursday, May 22, 2003
Lemme lay out the points made in this NYT article and what it says about the "educational standards" movement.

- Federal gov't passes a law (the "No Child Left Behind" law) saying that states must require all students to pass standardized tests.
- The law also requires all students (i.e., 100%) to meet proficiency standards in reading in math by 2014, "a level they say has never been achieved in any state or country."
- No additional money is provided to achieve these goals, because conservatives don't like "big government."
- The states can set their own standards, because conservatives like "states' rights."
- If the standards are not met, schools lose funding, because conservatives like "accountability."

So what happens when you set higher standards (I thought conservatives liked deregulation?) and don't provide any new funds to meet those standards (I though conservatives didn't like unfunded mandates?) but allow states to set their own standards? Well, of course, they simply redefine what constitutes a passing grade, and everything's fine. Does it help students? Nope, not really. But then it can be reasonably argued that this is all the fault of the original bill. And, again, conservatives see an instutition they don't like, and instead of openly opposing it, they use the power of the purse to fund and legislate it out of its mandate.

I feel like conservative policy toward education is somewhat analogous to liberal policy towards gun control. They see certain problems in things they basically don't like anyway (c.f. the recent conservative quoted questioning "Who said we all get free education?...What is this, Russia?") and try and fix these problems largely through regulation. But enforcement is feeble because of certain biases in the ideology (righties don't like federal government dictating local policy; lefties are uncomfortable, despite what the NRA says, about the government having strong enforcement powers to seize private property) and practitioners on the ground generate constant work-arounds that end up little practical change beside having political battles supplant efforts at finding common-sense solutions, all supplanted by a public that has a hard time not supporting the dominant position ("Well, I like standards, and guns are bad...").

Then again, I'm a lefty, so I'm for gun control and against the standards movement. I don't understand how anyone who has spent any time in a public school can be reasonably for it, honestly--just saying that we're going to hold students to certain standards does nothing beside make the teachers teach to the test and take away from any opportunity they might have had to tailor their curriculum to the interests and abilities of their students. The problem everybody ultimately has seems to be with teachers (conservatives don't trust 'em), and if this is a problem, it can be solved, I think, through a combination of devolving power from the administrative level and getting the teacher's unions to agree to unequal pay scales so that better math and science teachers can be hired. And, I'm sorry to say, more funding targeted at schools that need it.

Well, that's not the most coherent argument I've ever put together in favor of the educational system, but you get the idea.

ADDENDUM: OK, didn't catch this on the first read-through:

The 600-page law, Mr. Bush's basic education initiative, was passed with bipartisan backing four months after Sept. 11, 2001. Many prominent Democrats, however, have since withdrawn their support, including Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who recently described it as "a phony gimmick."

"We were all suckered into it," Mr. Gephardt said. "It's a fraud."

Um. OK, Dick, I was willing to give you that line on PATRIOT. This one? Not so much. This is where electoral strategy divides from policy strategy: passing a popular proposal and then disavowing it when it turns sour is a good way to get yourself elected, but the policy damage has been done, and it's not like the implications weren't clear from the start. You've been in goddamn politics long enough to know that just because it has a "nice" name it isn't actually nice.