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Senate shock could affect schools

Like many of you, I was too wrapped up in the drama of what the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts might do to the health care bill to think about its possible impact on education. But a bit of reflection suggests that this could be an important part of a national reversal of federal spending and influence in other areas, including schools.

Of course I am too slow to come up with such an insight myself. I stole the idea from Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, who posted today his view that this might represent "a widespread backlash to big government."

I like big government for some things, not for others. I think the No Child Left Behind act's emphasis on raising achievment for low-income students has become tightly wired into American school culture, and will survive whatever happens next. It might be interesting to see if the states and school districts can produce better results with fresher ideas if the feds aren't in their faces all the time.

Here is what Petrilli said on Fordham's Flypaper blog:

"Before yesterday it seemed conceivable, even likely, that the federal role in education would continue to grow indefinitely. With states desperate for cash, the feds capable of borrowing it from China, and the apparent success of the Race to the Top in pushing a broad reform agenda, a new era of federal dominance in education seemed to be upon us. It appeared quite possible that within a few years the federal share of education spending could go up to 20 or even 30 percent, and lots of strings would come along with it.

"All of that might still happen; the states are going to remain broke for the foreseeable future, and the public isn’t keen on seeing class sizes rise or their favorite teachers laid off. But if Brown’s election represents a widespread backlash to big government, and in particular big, costly federal government, then this expanded federal role in education could be washed away along with universal health care. This anti-big-government revolt also makes it all the trickier for the national standards effort to thread the needle politically.

"Here’s my prediction: the Obama Administration will go out of its way, with its ESEA reauthorization proposal, to show that it is returning significant authority to states and local districts, to get out front of this wave. (Or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking.)"

We are apparently going to see many new governors elected this year. In my experience, they generally set the pace for school improvement in the country, at least on the policy level. They are never going to affect what happens in our schools as much as our most creative teachers, but it will be interesting to see if the big shift Petrilli suggests occurs.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 20, 2010; 3:01 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Brown victory and education, Mike Petrilli, Scott Brown victory, backlash against federal intervention in schools  
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Petrilli's just engaging in a bit of wishful thinking.

While President Obama's clearly indicated his support for a number of ideas that are anathema to the supporters of the educational status quo his ability, and the ability of the federal government, to motivate the adoption of those ideas is limited. Getting around those limitations won't be easy but I don't believe President Obama is willing to assume that the states will move in the direction he favors without being forced to by the federal government.

There's even evidence to support that view of the states in the form of the wide-spread reaction to the demands of NCLB. When faced with a federal requirement to meet their own standards to keep the federal money flowing quite a number of states simply lowered their requirements so that they were in compliance without the expenditure of any effort or any noticeable improvement in educational results.

The irony is that the ideas President Obama favors will bring about the changes he wants without recourse to federal arm-twisting.

Parents will choose one charter over another for any number of reasons but right near the top of most parent's list of requirements will be the educational quality school. That means a demand for information and that demand will result in supply. U.S. News and World Report's annual survey of high school, and all the other such publications, won't just be fun reading, they'll be the difference between life and death for schools.

Posted by: allenm1 | January 21, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

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