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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Odds & Ends: SCOTUS Impact on Lending, Philly Situation, NYT Bias, and More

By Rick Hess — June 27, 2012 5 min read
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It’s summer, I’m distracted by final editing on my Cage-Busting Leadership manuscript, and I think the heat is clouding my synapses. So, today we’ll go with a couple random thoughts on recent developments.

Will Health Care Ruling Upend Direct Lending? Tomorrow’s eagerly awaited SCOTUS ruling on health care reform could have a big, but thus far almost totally ignored, impact on college student loans. If you’ll recall, Democrats twinned health care reform with the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), which replaced the system of federal guarantees for private loans with “direct” federal lending (it essentially nationalized student lending). The fiscal impact of this decision depended entirely on how aggressively we expect the feds to pursue repayment and how much faith we have that Congress (which is busy bending over backwards to extend the 3.4 percent supersized subsidy on new Stafford loans, at a cost of $3 billion a year) will insist on repayment models that are good deals for taxpayers. Because I’m skeptical on both counts, especially with President Obama using student loans as a chance to keep pushing for more goodies, I think SAFRA was a bad idea. Here’s the thing. If the Supreme Court happens to reject health care reform in its entirety, SAFRA would go down too. (Now, after the Court’s Arizona decision earlier this week, the chatter thinks a partial reversal is more likely than a wholesale rejection, if the Court goes that way--but no one really knows). Such an outcome promises a lot of chaos for students, colleges and universities, the Obama administration, and Capitol Hill. Yet, recent discussions suggest that hardly anyone has spent much time thinking about this. Stay tuned.

The Philly Situation: Two men I like and respect--Bill Hite, the superintendent in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Pedro Martinez, the deputy in Clark County, Nevada--are the finalists for the superintendency in Philadelphia. I’ve been loosely involved in watching efforts to tackle that troubled system (partly because I teach at UPenn), and think the fact that these two emerged is a really promising sign. But the whole thing also reminds me of one of my big problems with organizing school systems by geography (see The Same Thing Over and Over for an extended discussion). The basic point is that in many lines of work you have the chance to build a terrific career in a single organization--leaders can grow a nonprofit or firm under or around them. This permits them to take on new responsibilities and challenges, and earn more acclaim and bucks, without having to hopscotch organizations. (This is why folks like Wendy Kopp, Mike Feinberg, David Levin, Dacia Toll, Elliot Washor, Larry Berger, Jonathan Harber, and so on have started from scratch and still been able to build rewarding careers without having to repeatedly parachute into new organizations). This is good for organizational culture and continuity. The school district model, on the other hand, leaves leaders with no recourse but to look to new systems when they want to seek out new challenges or lead a bigger or more prominent organization. That’s why even good, stable supes tend to move up a weight class every couple years. This is a problem.

Don’t Get Too Attached to Your Wavier: I spent some time with a pretty terrific group from NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals) yesterday, and one of the things they asked about was the deal with NCLB/ESEA waivers. I know folks are happy to be out from under the yoke of some of NCLB’s sillier provisions and score-keeping requirements. But, as I’ve noted, Duncan’s approach has required states to swallow an Obama administration agenda under the guise of “strings.” If Romney happens to beat Obama this fall (and the Iowa markets peg that likelihood at about 45% at this point), the conditions that Duncan has attached may well be null and void. To retain their waiver, states may have to sign up for an entirely new laundry list of conditions--whether it’s vouchers for kids in persistently low-performing schools, paycheck protection, or whatever else a Romney Secretary of Ed might fancy. And neither Dems nor state leaders will be in a position to complain about this. Once Duncan pushed this novel, expansive notion of waiver authority, he invited the next Republican administration to play “good for the goose, good for the gander.”

NYT Continues Its Crusade Against Charter Schooling and Profit: Last week, the New York Times‘s Gail Collins took another lazy swipe at charter schooling and for-profit education, writing, “The hottest new wrinkle for private companies eager to tap into public school funding is charter cyberschools. A study at the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center found that only about a quarter met federal standards for academic progress.” Just a couple of things about these two sentences. First, CU’s NEPC is hardly an unbiased source here. It’s headed up by my pal Kevin Welner, who is fairly honest about his antipathy towards charter schooling, school vouchers, for-profits, and so forth. Second, I have no clue what “federal standards” Collins is talking about, as there are none. There are, of course, NCLB-mandated proficiency thresholds in every state. But we’re all well aware that those are arbitrary, and defenders of traditional district schools (including many folks associated with NEPC) have explained in exquisite (and accurate) detail how problematic those are for rendering judgment on school quality. After all, what we really care about is how much kids are learning in a school, and NCLB’s AYP apparatus tells us nothing about that. Moreover, if you’re serving at-risk kids, as charters tend to do, you expect a relatively low passing figure--the question is whether kids are doing better or worse with you.

Won’t Back Down: Last weekend, I saw the first in-theater trailer for this new flick (which will bow in September). The movie stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter, and basically tells a parent trigger story. I happened to see near-final versions at a couple private screenings earlier this spring, and I mostly liked it. It dumps the faux- expertise of Waiting for Superman in favor of the more engaging conventions and unapologetic heartstring-tugging of edu-dramas like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me. I’m cool with that and vastly preferred it to what felt like Davis Guggenheim’s Michael Moore’ish agitprop. I don’t mind having my heartstrings tugged if you’re honest about where you’re coming from, and Won’t Back Down certainly is. Also, while it’s clearly a pro-choice, tough-on-unions film, I thought there were a couple of nice moments--though just a couple--where the filmmakers clearly made the extra effort to empathize with the teachers union and to humanize their concerns.

Last Week’s Ludicrous GAO Report on Charters and Special Ed: I don’t have anything to add to Mike Petrilli’s incisive, hard-hitting take on this. See here.

Banal Names for Ed Reform Groups: And here I’ve nothing to add to Jay Greene’s wry post on this. See here.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.