Mid-terms and the national education debate

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The national standards may have been approved in nearly 40 states, but the fact is that after the mid-terms the policy conversation is going to change dramatically. So much so that there are good political reasons to wager that this effort at developing national standards will collapse, as did similar attempts under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

As the Gucci Gulch types inside the Beltway admit, the road to implementation will require getting a lot of things — very big things — right. Big things like professional development, changes in ed school curricula and teacher certification. These big things raise big questions about how the federal government will motivate states to keep moving in lockstep with the its priorities if federal grants go away.

The record on successful education reforms driven from Washington is dreadful — think NCLB for the latest and greatest attempt — and a lot of that is due to the fact that the feds have little leverage to get states and localities to do what they want. And then there is politics — that dreaded reality for DC “movers and shakers.”

The politics around this whole effort is going to change very quickly. The mid-terms will jeopardize the momentum around national standards. There are 37 gubernatorial races this year and along with changes in the CEO position, for the most part, will come changes in the Commissioner positions. Some will stay the course; some will not. Key leaders of the national standards effort on the Republican side of the ledger, such as Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, will head off-stage.

With the GOP likely to take back the House and gain seats in the Senate, and with fiscal austerity the watchword, do not expect sustainable funding for implementation tasks or much policy continuity. With Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, both of whom are from high-performing states, likely to be candidates for president, federal intrusion in state educational programs is likely to become a theme in the 2012 elections. Pawlenty is an opponent of the national standards effort; Romney has not, to my knowledge, staked out a position.

The question of the role of skills will create some political pushback. US ED Secretary Arne Duncan’s move from his early talking points about trying to get the all states to do what Massachusetts and Florida did to an embrace of 21st century skills and educating the “whole child” will be a hard sell.

Key priorities of the Race to the Top application process will create political tensions. In particular, the RTT’s insistence on almost universal buy-in at the state level from teachers unions will be a non-starter. The RTT’s selection process, which awarded Ohio and New York over other states, as well as the almost total lack of representation from western states will likely lead to a congressionally led makeover of the program.

Because there are very few federal levers available to drive implementation of the national standards effort at the state and local level, Secretary Duncan may need to employ existing federal dollars as incentives — a big political threshold to cross. Common standards would have gone nowhere had it not been for Race to the Top. Some states needed the money so badly that they even adopted Common Core’s first really low-quality draft (e.g., Kentucky). The siren’s song of federal grants at a time of state fiscal crisis is mesmerizing.

The problem for the feds is that they will have little money to sustain this effort. At best, there will be less money available in the immediate years to follow. So where will the leverage to drive implementation come from? As the president and Secretary Duncan have noted, they may opt to hold out Title I, largely federal funds for urban districts, as the carrot (well, OK, stick) to get states to go along with their agenda. If they try that, the standards are no longer national but federal. Good luck selling that in Congress.

If states have to start paying for implementation of the national standards, you can forget about it. While we don’t have budget projections regarding the full cost of implementation (re-read that sentence, because it demonstrates the level of irresponsibility around this effort), it is easy to see that it will cross over into multi-billion-dollar territory.

So, after all the talk and hand-waving, and all the adults blathering about big change, we are likely to go back to reality. The feds will continue to supply a sliver of the overall educational funding pie, and states and localities will continue to pick up just about 9/10ths of every education dollar.

The road to implementation of the national standards has come to a bridge — and as many things in public policy, the construction of that bridge depends in great part on political realities. The moorings of the bridge to national standards are anything but stable.