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June 07, 2011 2 min read


What Can the Federal Government Do Well?

Last week I was in Washington, D.C., for a conference hosted by Rick Hess and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research that aimed to derive lessons from 50 years of federal government involvement in schooling.

Speaker after speaker, from the left as well as the right, talked about the inability of the federal government to generate on-the-ground improvement in schooling.

As a contrarian, I started to note the examples that contradicted the thesis, and found that the speakers had actually offered a fairly lengthy list of things the federal government could do well amidst their overall pessimism. Here’s a scorecard.

The feds can:

1) Keep states and districts from doing awful things (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act).

2) Provide political cover for people lower in the system who want to do things but are afraid of political backlash.

3) Fund research and development (we could be much smarter about it, but it is a function of the feds).

4) Use the bully pulpit.

5) Fund discrete things directly (magnet schools were cited).

6) Directly fund other external actors who might be able to help provide better schooling.

7) Create common data, and force some degree of transparency.

The feds might be able to:

1) Use incentives to get states and districts to do valuable things, especially things they were marginally inclined to do anyway.

2) Help build an infrastructure of NGOs that could help schools do things better.

The feds cannot:

1) Create quality at the level of schools, or force schools to get better.

2) Make people do things they don’t want to do well (i.e., at a high level of quality).

3) Foster innovation (maybe they can, but they haven’t done much yet).

Four observations about this list:

The first is that what we think of as what government does—issuing lots of regulations that seek to force lower powers to do its bidding—is just one of many tools at the government’s disposal. That particular mechanism works really badly at producing quality, but the government has a number of other arrows in its quiver.

The second is that the bully pulpit is really important. With only 10 percent of the overall funding, the federal government has been able to drive the conversation—first around high-poverty students in the 1960s, then through A Nation at Risk (a commission sponsored by the Department of Education), and most recently through the No Child Left Behind Act.

Third, there may be some areas where there are just not good answers.

Fourth, we’re only one country in one period of time. What we have and haven’t done well to date is not a measure of what we could or could not do well in the future.

Think of this as a provocation to start the conversation. If the question is comparative advantage, what do you think the federal government is particularly positioned to do well? And, just as importantly, what does it not do well?

—Jal Mehta

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2011 edition of Education Week as Blog of the Week