Conspiracy theories and NCLB

Among the dissenters from the No Child Left Behind Act are those who claim that the not-so-secret purpose of NCLB is to privatize education. Jerry Bracey and Jim Horn have written reasonably similar arguments, and Bracey’s contains the following elements:

  • NCLB has unreasonable standards for AYP (100% proficiency by 2014)
  • NCLB’s provisions shift funds to private entities when schools fail to meet AYP
  • The original NCLB proposal included vouchers
  • Conservatives who used to be against federal intervention are now in favor of NCLB
  • NCLB’s standards for AYP undermine public support for schools

Since Florida has had a pro-vouchers, privatization-happy governor for more than seven years, I’ve seen the high-water mark for privatization efforts and can talk about this from closer observation than most. Yes, it’s true that Jeb Bush and his allies do not trust the public sphere, do not want expansion of the public sphere, trust private businesses, and think there is nothing wrong (and much right) with shifting resources to privatization. It’s also true that repeated messages of the schools are failing will have a long-term effect on education policy debates, what I have called the political legacy of school accountability systems. But to call NCLB (or Florida’s grading system) a conspiracy to destroy public schools and privatize the remains goes beyond the evidence, is not going to convince more than a fraction of the public, and—from my perspective as a critic of NCLB, the worst of these—hinders our ability to look at education politics in different ways.

One of the weaknesses with the argument that accountability is really a device for privatizing education is a simple political dynamic: politicians need to claim success. Why would they put something into operation that they honestly thought would destroy the reputation of all public schools, if they wanted to get re-elected in a few years or wanted to leave a legacy? In Florida, with our pro-vouchers governor, the system of labeling schools with an single letter grade is a good case in point. The vast majority of schools in Florida in recent years have received A or B letter grades. Governor Bush can claim success. I don’t know if this really means the kids are learning more—there are more elementary schools than high schools, elementary schools get higher grades than middle or high schools, and our state’s 8th-grade NAEP scores are nothing to write home about—but Bush’s A+ Plan has done relatively little to expand vouchers. The failing-schools voucher program at its height reached fewer than 1000 students, in contrast to the 30,000+ students in other voucher programs in Florida. Here, mundane political needs have trumped privatization.

Of course, the GWB White House is a different story, one where the principal actors don’t care too much about policy success. There are interesting case studies to be made of Iraq, NCLB, and Katrina—studies in see-no-evil planning, or the lack thereof. But that’s not an argument for a great conspiracy; it’s an argument for looking at NCLB’s specifics and implementation as ordinary, plain incompetence plus corruption. To be honest, almost any federal education law is an overcomplicated mess. I had to explain to a Tallahassee staff member a few months ago why a proposed alternative to Florida’s A+ Plan would be unworkable. (He got similar advice from others in the state, too.) That’s not the result of his wanting some nefarious end but (in this case) his lack of specialization in education and the rush to get some bill filed… and then, a few days later, he had to prepare a substitute as an amendment to the filed bill. He listened. The GWB White House doesn’t, in all too many cases, and that explains a whole lot about federal policy in the last 5-plus years, including the accountability Frankenstein embodied in AYP and the attached mandatory consequences. No conspiracy is needed to explain events. That doesn’t mean there might not be one, but the circumstantial evidence I’ve seen is not convincing.

The problem with conspiracy theory as policy analysis is that discussing conspiracy theories stops us from probing the serious dilemmas we face. And our accountability Frankenstein monster certainly exists. He was patched together from a few limbs of public-sphere degradation but a whole lot of experimental bionics that try to combine technocracy and democracy in a crude mess of vital organs. More prosaically, we do face the serious dilemma of wanting both a democracy with an egalitarian ethose—you know, the one where a decent education is a right of citizenship—and a technocratically sound way of implementing policy—the one where few people can understand the mechanics of implementation and the relative advantages or disadvantages of different methods. Yes, part of the trouble with NCLB is the assumption that relatively crude consequences can effectively shape behavior in a complex organization. (That holds both for privatization and also the other provisions, such as the threat of reconstitution) But the big question won’t go away even if we threw privatization out the window.

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