makers have some mutual goals. But commonality of goals can no longer be taken for granted.
Thus far the overarching aim of the Bush administration has been to enhance student achievement with a simple message that we should leave no child behind. It is difficult to imagine that states and districts do not subscribe to this federal goal. However, desires of state or local decision-makers to appease certain constituents, to insure re-election, or merely to minimize conflict may reduce the urgency of meeting the federal objectives.
Devolution also presumes that well-intentioned state or local officials have the ability to act on accurate information in ways consistent with meeting agreed-upon goals. There is tremendous variability in the power structure of educational interests across states and districts.
Teacher unions come immediately to mind, but often school boards and schools of education often are just as likely to obstruct activity at the state or district level. For example teacher unions might oppose performance-based compensation, but school boards often object to policies shifting decision from the district to the school site; and colleges of education reject alternative certification for teachers because that could reduce jobs for professors.
In theory, federal funds shifted from earmarked programs to block grants, assuming the money is made flexible, can be put to best use. However, think of a district that has used so-called class size reduction money to lower class size in its schools. It has hired new teachers and thereby committed money to pay them. The fact that such money is now bundled into a pot that may be used for a variety of teacher quality initiatives does not free up money already committed to additional teachers-at least not without much upheaval and controversy.
So how can we reconcile these problems with beliefs in individual rights and local decision-making? First, one must ask if there are situations where these principles must be suspended. Leaving decisions about the width of railroad tracks to the states or to individual companies resulted in different gauges in different states and the efficiency killing need to transfer freight to different railway cars at state borders. A federal mandate solved that problem.
Yet we must clearly recognize differences in state and local education priorities. Consequentially we must ask ourselves whose individual rights and whose local decision making do we seek to protect: the providers of the funding (i.e. the taxpayers) or the users of the funding (i.e. the education establishment)? We suggest the former.
If taxpayers elect a president and Congress with instructions to improve student achievement and to leave no child behind, it is these rights and desires that the President and Congress should protect. By simply sending money to an establishment that may not know how to achieve the goals set by taxpayers, or may not be willing or able to do so, the federal government is abdicating its responsibility.
But clearly this is not a call for the federal government to micromanage our state and local education policy and practice. Rather it is a suggestion that in certain instances sending unencumbered pots of money to the states may be a bad idea. The middle ground is to send states the money with incentives to put it to good uses that have been identified by proven quality research and methods. We need to help well-intentioned state and local education officials do the right things-even if we do not tell them exactly how to do them.
Previous federal efforts have expressed little reluctance to impose their will on the education enterprise, and unfortunately program funding has simply not been tied to program results. Consequently education reform has been forced to deal with interest groups that have thrived under this system. Can better policies result from sending unencumbered money to those interest groups? Is devolution always the best policy for conservatives?
Let the debate begin.