Saturday, June 30, 2012
Diseconomies of Scale: The case for limiting federal involvement in educational policy
Today's New York Times reports that the Obama Administration has granted yet more waivers from No Child Left Behind's patently unrealistic 2014 deadline for meeting statutory educational goals. NCLB was supposed to be renewed in 2007, but Congress has been too paralyzed by partisan gridlock to revise federal educational policy. The Obama Administration has stepped in to fill the vacuum with patently lawless but also absolutely essential waivers of NCLB's "mandatory" goals, replacing them with a sort of "cap-and-trade" educational benchmarks in which multiple disadvantaged groups can be lumped together into a single mega-group, such that lack of progress in one group can be offset by educational achievements of the others. These waivers are lawless, because NCLB nowhere provides such discretion to the executive: Far more than immigration policy or executive privilege, educational policy under the Obama Administration is Exhibit A for Terry Moe's and William Howell's thesis that the executive relentlessly expands its power in the American constitutional system.
It is hard to blame the Obama Administration for waiving preposterous NCLB educational goals: These goals were pulled out of the sky by national politicians with short time horizons and a taste for inflated rhetoric. Yet the Obama Administration seems hell-bent on repeating the hubris of NCLB by attaching various "core curriculum" standards as conditions for its NCLB waivers -- curriculum standards that can succeed only with sustained local support that U.S. DOE Secretary Arne Duncan cannot possibly conjure up from Washington, D.C., even assuming that he stays in power for another four years. Mike Petrelli of the Fordham Institute warned Duncan against this hubris almost a year ago, noting the danger of provoking a backlash that will discredit the curricular proposals (all of which, on their merits, seem pretty sound to me). But the Obama Administration proceeds apace, apparently oblivious of the fact that they do not have the educational foot soldiers in place to carry out the reforms after the waiver agreements are signed in DC.
As I argue in a paper forthcoming in Notre Dame Law Review, the problem is that education suffers from diseconomies of scale. As one enlarges the scale of government providing or supervising educational services, the population becomes more heterogeneous and the gridlock, more intractable. It is the old "Federalist #10" story -- but with the moral reversed: The national government's inability to respond to a decisive national majority turns out to be a tragedy, not a benefit. The problem is not that the feds' ideas about how to promote good schools are bad ideas: The problem is that the feds lack the capacity to mobilize stakeholders who care about children to support those good ideas. When the feds play the heavy, micromanaging providers through conditions on federal dollars, the typical result is that, at best, those conditions are simply ignored and, at worst, those ideas are discredited by angry subnational backlash.
The Hoover Institute's Koret Task Force Report on educational reform, to my mind, provides the best blueprint for a federal role in educational policy: Provide data to help parents make informed choices and directly finance low-income households’ education in public and private schools to overcome problems of educational inequality. I do not say that this modest role is the world's best educational program -- only that it is the only educational program that the feds can sustain over the decades necessary to turn our schools around.
Posted by Rick Hills on June 30, 2012 at 12:55 PM | Permalink
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