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Education Policy: An Insider’s View

Reader Eric Wearne writes:

I think a lot of the commenters on your Too Big to Fail post today about universities and the bill in New Mexico are on to something in terms of new ways of skills credentialing, spiraling college costs, the bubble, etc. But some are also reading more nefarious motives into this than are actually there.

Yes, as you know I am a member of a state college social science department, so take this for what it’s worth … but I’m also a traddish Catholic who worked in a state education policy agency under a southern Republican governor for several years, so factor that in too.

So first: Why would Republican state legislators want to throw cash at colleges when they are so often (rightly) critical of the campus atmosphere at those colleges? They wouldn’t. They’re looking for ways to weaken them in many places.

At the same time, Republican legislators have gone through 15+ years of pushing test-based accountability in K12 schools, and are now looking for a way past that method of judging schools. Sometimes people just have to go through things to see whether they’ll work or not, and loads of Republican legislators are there now. They want something that’s outcomes-based with which to measure schools, but they aren’t quite sure what that should be.

But while all that is going through their minds, these Republican legislators, NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY IN ELECTION YEARS, are also too afraid as a group to pass full-bore school massive choice programs in their states. Even with massive majorities in deep red states, the public K12 establishment is too strong, and the choice programs we have are objectively still really small.

So what do they do instead? They focus on the mantra of “college and career readiness.” This theme has been around for at least a decade, and is the “establishment” consensus, among the elite leaders of BOTH the right and left.

There is an alternative coalition made up of people with what you might call broader visions for K12 education, including homeschoolers, classical schoolers, crunchy con types, anti-technocratic leftists, etc. though it’s a pretty loose coalition because of the nature of its constituent parts. It’s the same concept as evangelicals and Muslims having much more in common than they’d admit, or how big business and the cultural left are on the same page now. I wrote an article about this concept in education policy, which was published a month or so ago: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1478210317743646?ai=1gvoi&mi=3ricys&af=R

Basically, it’s those looking for small-scale, human-sized, hyper local institutions, with all of the quirks and local flavoring that goes with that on the one hand, [versus] the organized, standardization-and-data-above-all types, who are insiders and usually have the formal power, on the other. And the ones on the inside write the bills.

Ultimately, from the Republicans’ side, making graduates prove that they have at least some kind of plan for after high school, and for which data can be easily obtained, and which at least seems a little more objective and outcomes-based than large-scale standardized tests, is what these Republican legislators are thinking. I really don’t think it’s much more than that (again, that’s from their perspective. They’re not in it to prop up the colleges. You know as well as I do that if legislators in some states put forth a bill to fund SEC football without the colleges attached, it might not pass…but it would get more than zero votes.

Now the Democrat legislators may be seeking whatever ways they can to maintain enrollments. But “college and career readiness,” and technocratic measurement systems are where Rs and Ds overlap and “get things done,” unfortunately.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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