Sunday, August 13, 2006

Fisking Wetterling on Education

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:48 PM |  

No Photoshop. No personal insult. No allegation of hidden agendas. Just a look at the basic underlying philosophy of Patty Wetterling on education, in her own words, and why I disagree with it (IN BOLD).

On the Issues: Education

As Minnesotans, we are justifiably proud of our public schools. Our teachers and our students consistently rank near the top nationwide. But as a former teacher, a parent and the founder of two PTAs, my hands-on experience with education tells me the same thing that I am hearing from my neighbors in the Sixth Congressional District: we can and must do better for our children because their future and our economic security as a nation depends on it.

Good first paragraph -- schools are doing great, but must do better. Two points to keep in mind. First, state rankings are aggregate. They tell us how a system is doing, but not how individuals within that system are doing. Second, as a former teacher, Wetterling is in an excellent position to offer suggestions for improving the current “public school system.” But what about the larger view of “public education”? Is Wetterling’s objective to improve public schools or improve individual education? They need not be one in the same.

What Can the Federal Government Do to Improve Minnesota Schools?

While state and local school districts are primarily responsible for educating our children, I believe that the Congress, the President, and the federal government should play an important role as partners in the effort. Decision-making regarding our schools is, for the most part, best left to local communities, but the federal government does have a responsibility to make sure that state and local officials have the resources they need to provide our children with the best educations possible. Unfortunately, too many of the politicians in Washington are not living up to that responsibility.

Good clear stance -- which I disagree with. The basic internal inconsistency is that the federal government cannot provide resources for education without first taking those resources from individuals. By taking those resources, the federal government limits educational choices of individuals to those "choices" that it decides to dedicate their resources too. Many might consider that a good idea -- Wetterling obviously does. I would ask, if it is wrong for the federal government to contribute resources to specific religions in the name of religious freedom, why is it okay for the government to contribute recourses to education -- the way people think?

Broken Promises:

No Child Left Behind
In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act became law and was widely viewed as a sweeping reform of our education system nationwide. It mandated new testing requirements for America’s students, set tough new standards for our schools, and promised new funding so that our school districts and our educators would have the resources to meet a new standard of excellence. Sadly, the federal government has broken that promise. Congress has consistently failed to fully fund NCLB – falling $13.2 billion short in Fiscal Year 2006 alone.

First -- that Congress has not fully funded NCLB says nothing about the substance of the program. For the record, I think that NCLB is flawed for the consistent reasons given above -- the federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in education, which is a state, local and individual responsibility. The Inconsistency in Wetterling’s position, or at least the difficulty with it, is her failure to recognize that giving the federal government a role in education means that, like NCLB, it can really screw things up. The higher the level of government, the more power it has, the more it can screw up for more people. At the local level, a private or a charter school fails; a set of families is affected. The government screws up NCLB and the nation is affected. Is that the way we want to manage education policy?

Second -- if the federal government is going to give funds to schools and demand accountability, and not measure accountability through parental choice, how other than high-stakes, arbitrary tests is that accountability going to be determined? To whom should schools be accountable -- the government, or parents that send children to those schools?

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
I was proud when my daughter decided to follow in my footsteps and became a teacher; and even prouder when she decided to work with students who have special needs. Frequently, however, I can see and hear her frustration and that of other parents across the Sixth Congressional District because the inadequate funding of special education is one of the biggest problems facing schools in Minnesota and across the country. More than 30 years ago, in 1975, the federal government promised to fund 40% of the education costs for special needs students and that commitment has not been met a single time. Not only does this mean that children with disabilities are being shortchanged, it means that every school district in the state is forced to divert resources from other programs to cover the federal shortfall – all of our children are feeling the effects.

It can be argued whether or not special education is really under funded, but that’s a sticks and stones argument. At the policy level understand that while special education funds are based on individual students, once the student enrolls at a public school, the funds go into a pool for “special education.” To make a statement like "40 percent of the education costs for special needs students" is misleading because we really have no idea what the cost is. If funds received remained attached to the child, rather than going to a system pool, better decisions for the child, not the system, could be made.

What Will I Do?
I will work with educators to assess the ongoing challenges of NCLB that are unique to Minnesota schools.

Good objective, except Minnesota schools are not unique. Children are unique. All schools have pretty much the same problems meeting mandates, funded or not. Why is Minnesota more deserving of federal dollars than, say, Arkansas? Which states should lose and which should win? By what standard? How about "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," or "all animals are equal, but pigs are more equal than others"?

No More Unfunded Mandates
The United States Congress simply cannot continue to force requirements on local school districts and then leave them with no way to pay for the programs needed to meet them. We are all forced to set priorities when we establish our household budgets, the Congress must do the same. Education of our children is the most important investment in this nation’s future that we can make. I will work hard to ensure the Washington keeps it promise to America’s students and teachers by doing everything in my power to ensure that No Child Left Behind and special education are fully funded. And I won’t vote for any new laws that put additional burdens on our schools unless Congress provides a way to pay for it.

This is the liberal version of “no new taxes” -- a blunt instrument that ties governments’ hands, sometimes in ways we don’t want. By fully-funding NCLB, is Wetterling in agreement that NCLB is a good program that ought to be funded? Her statement implies she wouldn’t have voted for it unless it was funded, but that demonstrates her lack of understanding of how Congress works.

When a program like NCLB is passed, it is passed with a recommended spending level, and a spending cap. But passing the bill isn’t the same as passing an appropriation bill. Actual annual funding for programs is passed as part of separate appropriations bills that balances the amounts requested for all kinds of programs. Passing a program, which ought to be based on its merits, is different than passing appropriations, which is based on competing requests and economics. Uncertain funding, which is built into the system, is another reason why federal involvement in education is not a good thing.

Further, let’s take NCLB and the assumption that Wetterling favors it because she wants to fully fund it. For all its flaws, NCLB made America aware of the Achievement gap between children of color and white students hidden by statements like Wetterling’s opening, “Our teachers and our students consistently rank near the top nationwide.” That’s true, but before NCLB, few people realized that Minnesota’s urban schools also have one of the highest achievement gaps in the nation as well.

Would Wetterling maintain such a gap for the economic reason that schools can’t afford to close it without more federal dollars? I don't think so, but that's the consequence, unintended or not, of her stated position.

Reduce Class Size
As a teacher, I know that every child learns in a unique way and I have never seen a child that didn’t benefit by a teacher’s personal attention. I will support the hiring of more teachers so that we can reduce the size of our classrooms and create the best possible learning environment for our children.

This is a canard, well intentioned that it might be. How much are we willing to spend to hire more teachers to achieve what level of class-size reduction? Why that size and not one student less? Seems like a simple question, and it is relatively simple if you are talking about a single school or even a school district. But Wetterling is running for Congress. The decision she will face is spending millions if not billions of dollars to hire tens if not hundreds of thousands of teachers in tens of thousands of schools. Is a federal expenditure the best way to achieve functional lower class sizes and, while smaller class-size is better, is it the highest priority for education dollars? I would argue that the floor of Congress is not the best place to decide those issues.

(It's interesting that under proposed Minnesota voucher programs, students opting for private schools would take a voucher worth only -- at maximum-- less than half the state funds allocated per student. That means for those remaining in district shools, class size is reduced and dollars per student goes up for a period of years.)

Provide for School Construction
I believe that the federal government can assist in rebuilding and improving our education system’s infrastructure. Children can’t learn and teachers shouldn’t be asked to teach in buildings that are falling apart and classrooms that are unsafe. I will support funding for school construction and improvement.

The federal government can assist in building schools, but should it? Again, aren’t those kinds of resources decisions better left to the states from which government originally took the resources in the first place? Why should people from Minnesota send money to Washington to build schools in Tennessee, or the other way around? In other words, why should Washington decide Minnesota needs a new school more than Tennessee does?

An Emphasis on Math and Science
As a math teacher, I have a special appreciation for the importance of math and science skills in today’s more technologically advanced workplaces. Math, science, technological and engineering skills are critical to our children’s futures and to our national economy. I will support funding for programs that help our students develop these skills, as well as those that will train our educators to better teach them.

Again, and perhaps the best example, this is why I disagree with Wetterling’s federal approach to education. I certainly have no problem with math and science and certainly believe they are necessary if America needs to compete in the world. However, it’s dangerous and foolish to let the federal government set educational priorities. We educate children so they can make choices about what they want to do with their lives, not as cogs in the national economy. This notion leads the “School to Work” philosophy that would tie “education policy” to “national industrial policy,” the notion that government can manage the labor force. Do we really want the federal government picking academic winners and losers?
Wetterling’s basic education position is that the federal government should play a significant role in education policy, funding and even content. If I had a “Dump Wetterling” mentality I’d Photoshop her tearing up the constitution. I’d demand to know if Patty Wetterling endorses tyranny where the federal government dictates what every person will study. I’d demand to know if she supports every position of teacher’s unions (Does she support high-cost school supplies resulting from a Wal-Mart boycott?) and the blatant socialism of Marc Tucker (of “Dear Hillary” fame). That’s the way Michele Bachmann is attacked.

However, I don’t for a second think that Wetterling holds any of those views. And frankly I don’t care who supports her, other than as a directional indicator. Her philosophical direction is clear. All of what she proposes is well-intentioned, some of her ideas are good (the implementation method is at question), but then so was the building of the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Wetterling‘s positions, regardless of immediate intentions, move us along the path to federal dominance of education -- not just policy, but now content. While advocating federal involvement in education, Wetterling sets no logical limit on that involvement. If the government can target science and math for special attention, then why not at some point human genetic engineering? Maybe that master race thing isn’t such a bad idea after all?

This is a dangerous position, not just for what it says, but because it has immediate appeal for people looking for simplistic feel-good approaches to complex problems. It wasn’t until the good guys started dying that well-intentioned Col. Nicholson realized that maybe building a bridge for the enemy to cross the Kwai wasn’t the best way to build his troops’ morale. His dying words “What have I done?” I submit, play very well examining Wetterling’s education position.

Have it it folks!

Update: Contrast Wetterling’s education philosophy with Michele Bachamnn’s.
As a mother of 5 children and 23 foster children, education is a primary concern for our family. Our schools must set high academic standards to prepare our children for fulfilling future careers in the workforce and to become knowledgeable citizens as our future leaders. Providing parents with educational choices, not more red tape with expensive and unmanageable mandates, is one of my guiding principles for educational reform.

The most important educator of children is parents and guardians. Consequently, the best education system empowers parents with information and allows for greater parental involvement. For that reason, I'm a strong supporter of local control for our schools to ensure the most important decisions are made by parents, classroom teachers, and members of the local community where our children live and attend school. Those closest to our students, not well-intentioned but distant bureaucrats, understand best our students' needs to achieve academic excellence.
Yes, it’s light on detail compared to Wetterling’s web page, but it is so because Bachmann is not proposing that the federal government expand it’s role in education. When she reacts to proposals like those Wetterling supports, it will be in the context of the impact on local control, parental responsibility and obligation and the impact on individual children. In two brief paragraphs, she provides a concise statement of specific principle in sharp contrast to Wetterling’s well-intentioned bureaucracy and "do good, avoid evil" ambiguity.