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What We’ve Got Here Is...Failure to Communicate

By Rick Hess — May 19, 2011 3 min read
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One of the funniest developments of the past six months has been watching self-confident individuals at the Department of Education and at various advocacy outfits (especially putatively “conservative” ones) explain to newly committed small-government Republicans what Republicans are “supposed” to favor.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is trying to convince the Republicans that they’re supposed to embrace a supersized, amped-up version of NCLB. The Fordham Foundation that they should embrace the Common Core, efforts to develop common curricula, and the rest. Reform-minded Dems that they’re supposed to embrace federal direction on “highly effective teachers,” ED’s anti-bullying crusade, federally-mandated school turnarounds, more Race to the Top, more federal ed spending, and so on. Like an American tourist addressing a non-English speaker, the “reformers” have tried pleading, using outsized gestures, repeating themselves (a lot), and speaking louder. All to no avail.

Long hailed by the Bush administration as a bipartisan force for reform (the Bushies, shall we say, had a taste for big government), the Education Trust is having trouble believing that GOP staff now regard its ambitious proposals as conventional liberal wish-lists. Hill staffers tell of the Ed Trust showing up, with the Business Roundtable in tow, to make the case for an expansive NCLB reauth--imagining that this demonstration of spectrum-spanning will cow Republicans into submission.

After all, the would-be reformers know themselves to be smart, thoughtful, educated, and well-intentioned. They’ve anointed themselves (and been anointed in the popular press) as gutsy reformers. Thus, they can’t imagine that any sensible person would feel otherwise. Conservatives who disagree must either be nuts, dim, or not yet had the issues properly explained to them.

It all brings to me the drawling prison warden in Cool Hand Luke who laconically observed, “What we’ve got here is...failure to communicate.”

As one frustrated Senate Republican staffer told me: “We’ve reached the point where those in favor of nationalizing the system (surreptitiously of course) can only refute arguments against their position by implying they are the only serious people at the table and the other side is filled with pre-pubescent toddlers who don’t understand that mommy and daddy should be trusted to take care of them just fine.”

Even mainstream conservatives are being radicalized. Last weekend, standards guru Sandra Stotsky, a longtime champion of standards-based reform and generally regarded as an NCLB supporter, blasted the very notion of federal involvement in schooling. In an e-mail exchange regarding the Common Core, she wrote, “I’ve tried to think of sound federal policies in education (with positive effects on student achievement), and the closest I’ve come are the Land Grant Acts of the 19th century...In my lifetime, I can’t think of ONE federal policy that has improved student achievement.”

It’s kind of amusing, really. The self-proclaimed reformers just can’t imagine that, confronted with data showing that many children are poorly served, any sensible adult could look askance at their favored policies. When confronted with skepticism that the measures will work as intended, the would-be reformers ask with wide-eyed shock, “Are you willing to just let those children fail?” If a conservative House staffer suggests that maybe the feds lack the ability or purview to solve the problem, would-be reformers seem to think they’ve stepped through the looking glass.

I don’t know how much longer this little show will run, but I’m betting it’s at least through November 2012.

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