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Policy Corner: Bush Ed II

There are some decent things in Bush’s second big education proposal that got overshadowed by his implicit attack on conservative Republicans. One is Bush’s offer of $3 billion in loan guarantees to spur the construction of 2,000 charter schools in two years. Consolidating some 60 federal education programs into five categories isn’t a bad idea, either.

But the central thrust of Bush’s “Culture of Achievement” plan, which relates to standards and testing, deploys just the kind of unwieldy regulatory mechanism Bush is elsewhere trying to eliminate. Indeed, even Bush’s top education advisors don’t think this aspect of the proposal makes much sense–except in political terms.

In the plan unveiled at his speech to the Manhattan Institute on Tuesday, Bush proposed that states be rewarded or penalized with federal dollars on the basis of whether student performance improves in the future. This implies standards and testing: If you’re going to have a system of rewards and punishments, you have to have some way to judge who deserves which. W.’s idea of merit pay for states points, in fact, toward something advocated by his father, Bill Clinton, and countless other education reformers: national standards and tests. National standards would set a benchmark for what children of different ages should be expected to know. National tests would allow for objective evaluation of how well various states and schools were teaching them.

But this runs smack into a big political problem. Conservatives reject anything that smacks of federal control of education policy, funding, or curriculum. In particular, the right is paranoid about bureaucrats at the Department of Education setting curricular standards or administering tests. They see national tests as a violation of local prerogatives and a step toward a Washington takeover of education in general.

So Bush splits the difference, opting for what you might call local-national standards. Here’s how his Rube Goldberg system would work, as far as I can understand it. In line with conservative dogma, states would be free to set their own standards and select the tests that they would be obligated to give to every child between grades three and eight, every year, as a condition of receiving federal money. The federal government would pay half the cost of these tests.

The problem: As with the first part of the plan, which deals with Title One funding (see “Policy Corner: Bush Ed“), the states themselves determine whether they deserve more or less money from the feds. Bush is not entirely unaware of this moral-hazard problem. To counter it, he adds another “optional” test, this one federal. The federal government “asks” (in other words, tells) states to participate in the annual National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The idea here is, as Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust but verify.” States don’t have to participate in the NAEP, but if they don’t, they must pay for an alternative test themselves and prove that the results can be “equated” with NAEP results. So what would happen if the state test and the NAEP differed, as they inevitably would? This is left ambiguous, for obvious reasons. If federal money is actually tied to performance on NAEP, then the state tests are a meaningless sop to conservatives. And if the money is tied to state tests, then the whole incentive structure–and the idea of making valid comparisons among states–collapses.

Bush’s education “surrogates,” Diane Ravitch and William Bennett, spoke to reporters before his Tuesday speech to explain and defend his proposal. Neither was able to do so very well for a simple reason: It contradicts what they think. Both Ravitch and Bennett are long-standing advocates of national standards and testing.

Ravitch, who has written two books making the case for national standards, says there is simply no alternative for Bush, because of the opposition to the idea in both parties. “It’s become obvious that at this point Congress is not going to endorse a national test,” she told me in a phone interview. “So what would be the point of Bush supporting it?” Ravitch, who says she considers herself a dissatisfied Democrat rather than a Republican, adds this lukewarm endorsement, “I think that he is in some strange fashion trying to do the right thing.”

Bennett is equally unenthusiastic. I asked him about the standards issues after Bush’s speech on Tuesday. “I told the governor that when I had the job [secretary of Education], we evaluated the state evaluations,” Bennett told me. “Ninety-two percent were scoring above average. You add up the individual state assessments and you get a rosy picture.” Bennett said that while he thought Bush’s plan might be workable, “I’m more of a national-standards person.”

In other words, on a day when George Bush was supposedly distancing himself from conservative Republicans, he was actually caving to their foolish dogma on the issue at the center of campaign–over the objection of his two top advisors on the subject.