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No Pundit Left Behind

Ohanian Comment:
Rotherham and the Progressive Policy Institute rated a couple of pages in our book Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? The Institute was formed as Third Way democrats under Clinton. Part of the Democratic Leadership Council, their mission was to 'rescue' the Democratic Party from liberalism. They sure did succeed. Solidly in the camp of the Business Roundtable. Solidly backing No Child Left Behind.

The Third Way is a global movement dedicated to modernizing progressive politics for the information age. Third Way politics seeks a new balance of economic dynamism and social security, a new social compact based on
individual rights and responsibilities, and a new model for governing that equips citizens and communities to solve their own problems.


Rotherham calls me paranoid. I call him worse.

No Pundit Left Behind

Washington IT is clear the top leadership at the Department of Education is the gang that can't flack straight. How else to explain the department's decision to pay the commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in his work and to his colleagues? Ultimately, this is a second-tier scandal, but it takes a place among a series of bad decisions that risk scuttling the most ambitious effort in a generation to improve education for poor and minority youngsters.

Mr. Williams strenuously claims he supported the No Child Left Behind law before he accepted any money, and there is no reason to doubt him. But this defense just adds ineptitude to the already shady nature of the deal. If Mr. Williams was a proponent of the law, then the political appointees at the Department of Education spent almost a quarter of a million dollars paying off someone already on their side. Ethics notwithstanding, this is a stunningly inefficient use of public dollars - every bit as redundant as paying football fans to watch the Super Bowl.

Moreover, the Bush team knew where to look for more cost-effective marks - that is, ones who needed persuading. At least until recently, the administration kept rankings of reporters based on their coverage of the law and its efforts on education. Reporters were graded on a 100-point scale depending on whether their stories were critical or favorable toward the law.

Bravely jeopardizing incalculable points, Ben Feller of The Associated Press broke that news last October. Yet here again, the deed itself is actually less worrisome than the implicit message about the department's top leadership: hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on the outside consultants who actually did the rankings.

Can political appointees who botch the simple economics of a payoff - or cannot figure out by themselves which news articles are favorable to them and which aren't - put into effect a law as complicated as No Child Left Behind? It's no laughing matter. Large policy changes require sustained, intensive and expert attention.

So far the administration's record fails to inspire confidence. Initially, it was slow to work with states and school districts and explain what the new education law requires, causing confusion among all parties. Those problems persist to this day. And when it finally did get regulations and information out, some were overly restrictive and subsequently needed revision, causing more confusion and costing support.

Playing politics with the law's financing also gave its critics an easy target. Considering the overall lack of fiscal constraint typical of this administration, its decision to suddenly become stingy on crucial programs called for in the law is inexplicable.

And then there were missteps like Secretary of Education Rod Paige's characterization of the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization." While unrelated to specific policies, such statements further weakened the administration's credibility.

Meanwhile, liberal Democratic stalwarts like Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative George Miller gamely resist efforts by groups like the teachers union to gut the law's accountability requirements. The stream of almost entirely avoidable problems and Department of Education gaffes makes it even harder for Democratic supporters of the law to resist the pressure.

Repealing a law passed with broad bipartisan support is usually an uphill struggle. In this case, however, the law's critics enjoy a powerful ally: the Department of Education. It is nearly impossible to buy the sort of bad publicity the department has lately been giving away. The new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, should focus on getting the policy right, and let the public relations take care of itself.

Andrew J. Rotherham, director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, writes the blog Eduwonk.com.

— Andrew J. Rotherham
New York Times


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