THE MEDIA AND PUNDITS treat politics like a sport. The significance of the recent agreement to postpone the debt crisis until January, for instance, is really about which party won and which lost, which party’s tactics are liable to be more successful in the next election, and which politician is a winner and which a loser. But politics rightly understood is not about the contest of policies or politicians. It’s about the philosophical principles and ideas that create one policy rather than another—that’s what it should be about, at least.
From that point of view, the conflict between Democrats and Republicans concerns the size and role of the federal government, which is no surprise to anyone who even casually follows politics. But more important are the ideas that ground arguments for or against limited government. These ideas include our notions of human nature, and what motivates citizens when they make political decisions. Our political conflicts today reflect the two major ways Americans have answered these questions.
The framing of the Constitution itself was predicated on one answer, best expressed by Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli: “It is necessary to whoever arranges to found a Republic and establish laws in it, to presuppose that all men are bad and that they will use their malignity of mind every time they have the opportunity.” Throughout the debates during the Constitutional Convention, the state ratifying conventions, and the essays in the Federalist, the basis of the Constitution was the view that human nature is flawed.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 6, men are “ambitious, vindictive and rapacious,” and are motivated by what James Madison called “passions and interests.” These destructive passions and selfish interests were particularly predominant among the masses, whose ignorance of political theory and history left them vulnerable to demagogues. Hence the people “are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men,” as Elbridge Gerry said during the Constitutional Convention debates.
This low estimation of the people partly explains the “democracy deficit” in the original Constitution, which allowed the people to elect directly only the House of Representatives. But unlike Plato, who proposed an elite with superior wisdom to run the state justly and efficiently, early Americans believed the flaws of human nature were universal, and all men, no matter their wealth or intelligence, were corruptible. More important, they were firm believers in the tendency of concentrated power to corrupt, for power is “of an encroaching nature,” as George Washington and James Madison said, and is ever striving to increase its scope. Vanity, greed, pride, and selfishness, John Adams wrote, “are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.”
Universal human depravity thus precluded any simple form of government whether democratic, monarchical, or aristocratic. The solution of the framers was the mixed government in which the democratic House of Representatives, the aristocratic Senate (chosen by the state legislatures), and the monarchical president (chosen by the Electoral College) would along with the judiciary divide the powers and functions of government and thus check and balance the tendency of each branch to maximize its power at the expense of the people’s freedom. As James Madison explained in Federalist 51, the “separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government” would allow each branch “to resist the encroachment of the others,” for “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Starting in the late nineteenth century, a different view of human nature and its motivations developed. The Progressive movement rejected the Founders’ assumption of the universal depravity of human nature. Progressives believed human nature could be improved.
Equally important was the principle of federalism, the protection of the power of the states evident in giving state legislatures the responsibility for selecting Senators and the presidential electors. Given the variety of conflicting interests among the states, Madison wrote in Federalist 10, there will be a “greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest,” and “greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority.” Any selfish interest or violent passion “will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states,” and “the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it [the nation] must secure the national Councils against any danger from that source.” Just as the variety of interests and passions among the people will check and balance each other, so too will the variety of state interests check and balance the power of the federal government.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, a different view of human nature and its motivations developed. The Progressive movement rejected the Founders’ assumption of the universal depravity of human nature. Progressives believed human nature could be improved under the environmental pressures of technological, scientific, and economic changes. New “sciences” like sociology and psychology had developed that were discovering the material causes of human behavior whether social, economic, or political. From this knowledge came the technical means of alleviating the social and economic disruptions attending these changes. Masters of this new knowledge and the techniques for applying them, if given power, could apply these insights into governing and managing the state, and solving the new problems that had arisen from industrialization and technological change.
From the Progressive perspective, the Constitution and its structure of checks and balances were outmoded. Industrialization and technological development had created new problems that required a different form of federal government. According to Progressive president Theodore Roosevelt in his 1901 State of the Union speech:
The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, they are no longer sufficient.
Woodrow Wilson made the same argument. Politics must now be understood as a Darwinian process, and the Constitution must evolve to meet new circumstances. “All that progressives ask or desire,” Wilson wrote in 1913 in The New Freedom, “is permission—in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”
The limited government of the Founders, then, was incapable of effective government given the developments in economic and social life that were changing human nature. The national interest could no longer be served by the state governments, the free market, or civil society. A bigger and more powerful national government was necessary to control big business and corporations, and to more equitably distribute wealth and improve the general welfare. The clash of the various interests and passions of individuals and factions must be neutralized, and national unity must be created through a national government and its technocratic administration. The individual rights enshrined in the Constitution had to be redefined in terms of the larger society and its welfare.
The right to property, for example, so crucial for the framers, now must be “subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it,” as Theodore Roosevelt said in his famous “New Nationalism” speech delivered during the 1912 presidential campaign. Enforcing this concern for the “general right of the community” required a “policy of a far more active government interference with social and economic conditions.”
But the Founders’ main motive in crafting the government they did was not to create utopia, but to protect the freedom of all from the dangers of concentrated power, whether this power was embodied in the majority or in a minority.
In his last State of the Union speech Roosevelt said: “The danger to American democracy lies not in the least in the concentration of administrative power in responsible and accountable hands. It lies in having the power insufficiently concentrated” to serve the unified interests of the collective people. Woodrow Wilson concurred. Imagining in The New Freedom the progressive utopia that would come into being once the existing politico-social order had been rebuilt by what Wilson calls political “architects” and “engineers,” he describes it as a structure “where men can live as a single community, co-operative as in a perfected, coordinated beehive.”
To achieve these aims, the federal government had to grow, with agencies and bureaus created to administer the laws and regulations presumably made necessary by new economic and social conditions. “There is scarcely a single duty of government which was once simple which is not now complex,” Woodrow Wilson wrote in his essay “The Study of Administration.” He went on to write:
The functions of government are every day becoming more complex and difficult, they are also vastly multiplying in number. Administration is everywhere putting its hands to new undertakings…. Whatever holds of authority state or federal governments are to take upon corporations, there must follow cares and responsibilities which will require not a little wisdom, knowledge, and experience.
This wisdom, knowledge, and experience will be the purview of those schooled in the new sciences, not the traditional wisdom and practical experience of the people pursuing their various and conflicting interests. As Progressive journalist Walter Lippmann wrote in 1914:
We can no longer treat life as something that has trickled down to us. We have to deal with it deliberately, devise its social organization, alter its tools, formulate its method, educate and control it. In endless ways we put intention where custom has reigned. We break up routines, make decisions, choose our ends, select means, [which we can do because] the great triumph of modern psychology is its growing capacity for penetrating to the desires that govern our thought.
The instrument of this process necessarily must be the federal government, now enriched by the Sixteenth Amendment, which in 1913 instituted a national income tax.
The Progressives, then, discarded the Founders’ vision of an eternally flawed human nature, and the constitutional architecture that balanced and checked the tendency for people and factions to pursue their interests and maximize their power at the expense of others. Now a more powerful federal government—currently comprising over 500 agencies and offices, with 2.3 million employees costing $200 billion annually—armed with new knowledge and backed by coercive federal power, will organize, regulate, and manage social and economic conditions to improve life and create a more just and equitable society.
But the Founders’ main motive in crafting the government they did was not to create utopia, but to protect the freedom of all from the dangers of concentrated power, whether this power was embodied in the majority or in a minority. As Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist 85:
I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed.
A powerful minority of federal technocrats unaccountable to the people is no exception to the maxim that “power is of an encroaching nature,” its growth always coming at the expense of freedom.
These are the two visions behind the politics of debt and government spending that are necessary for financing a technocratic big government. The outcome of the budget negotiations in January and February will reflect which idea triumphs: that of government limited to protect the autonomy and freedom of flawed humans, or that of big government creating a better world for perfectible humans through entitlement spending financed by taxes and debt. That is the debate we need to be having.
Mr. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. This article is reprinted from Defining Ideas, with the permission of the publisher, the Hoover Institution. Copyright 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.
WHAT IS HAPPINESS? Aristotle, one of the first to examine that question, concluded that “happiness depends on ourselves.” He was right about this, although he then went on to devote much of the Nicomachean Ethics to what he thought everyone should do about it.
The trouble is that much of the analytical research on happiness that is going on around the world suffers from the same problem of subjectivity. Unfortunately, public officials around the world are building on this subjective research to craft supposedly objective public programs.
The central question in making happiness the focus of government decision making is: How do you measure it? Proponents of happiness research have developed metrics and indices which they say are firmly grounded in the scientific method. When you lift the stone, though, all sorts of unpleasantness is revealed. These measures are essentially subjective.
Designed to Show Progress Doesn’t Matter
The first measure in assessing happiness is obtained by asking people how happy they are. Yet the questions that are commonly asked in such surveys are vague and unscientific, such as: “Taken altogether, how would you say that things are these days?”; “Do you think of yourself as very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”; and “Have you felt you are playing a useful part in things?”
The answers to these questions cannot be empirically tested or verified. They are subject to all sorts of vagaries up to and including what mood the person being questioned is in.
Moreover, in an attempt to quantify the findings, the responses are normally coded on a scale from one to 10 or even from one to three. An obvious problem presents itself: What happens to respondents who say they are “very happy,” thus receiving the top mark on the scale, but then their situation improves?
The indices, quite simply, have a built-in bias against measuring improvements in people’s conditions. A person at the top of the scale who feels worse when asked a question for a second time will drive his ranking down, but one who feels happier will have no effect.
Inconsistent and Subjective Measures
Yet these dubious measures aren’t the only ones included in happiness indices. Other measures judged by the researchers to affect quality of life go into the mix, yet the selection of those measures is subjective by itself.
For instance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index contains two measures of the effects of crime: the homicide rate and the assault rate. Measuring the assault rate depends on accurate reporting of such crimes (which may be inadequate in countries with ineffective or corrupt police forces), and is therefore problematic in itself.
Also, the category is obviously incomplete as there is no measure of property crime. Someone who has his or her meager belongings stolen regularly is unlikely to be happy, even when subjected to no other crimes.
Doesn’t Freedom Count?
Even if these measures were meaningful, it is difficult to see how they can helpfully inform public policy.
Presumably, they could be used to promote some activities and restrict or prohibit others on the basis of whether they seem to increase or decrease happiness. But this runs slap bang into what Nobel Prize winning economist Friederich Hayek called “the knowledge problem.” Individuals know how to augment their own happiness better than any public officials acting on their behalf.
Finally, these indices, which normally show that the Western world has not become happier since the 1940s, plainly miss something. Not only are we healthier and wealthier and more educated, but our society has changed fundamentally for the better in a lot of ways.
American society has improved leaps and bounds in terms of extending rights and freedoms to previously disenfranchised citizens. None of this is reflected in the measures that happiness researchers like to cite.
Perhaps we should instead learn from an empirical experiment with happiness as a policy guide—the tiny mountain Kingdom of Bhutan. As sustainability guru Jeffrey Sachs like to point out, “Forty years ago, Bhutan’s fourth king, young and newly installed, made a remarkable choice: Bhutan should pursue ‘gross national happiness’ rather than gross national product.”
Yet this is the same king who presided over what was essentially a medieval theocracy until his abdication in 2008. In the first peaceful transition of power under the new democracy there, a government was elected that declares itself “happiness skeptical.”
The new Prime Minister Tshering Togbay, facing crippling debt levels, recently said: “If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction.”
Looks like we can learn something from Bhutan, after all.
Mr. Murray is director of the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. A version of this article was first published by Fox News. For a more detailed look at the problems with happiness research, see Murray and Blake Taylor’s study “What Is the Happiness Lobby? Growing Body of Questionable Research Lends Support to Paternalistic Policies,” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
NATIONAL EDUCATION STANDARDS and assessments are being pursued by national organizations with the support of the Obama administration. Proponents of the Common Core national standards push argue that establishing “fewer, higher, and clearer” benchmarks and aligned assessments will empower parents with information about what their children should know and which skills they should possess and that they will hold schools accountable for producing those results. National standards and testing, they say, will ensure that all children are ready for college or the workforce and will advance the educational standing of the United States.
On the one hand, such a critique of the status quo is well founded. Parental empowerment is essential and currently lacking. The monopoly that is the public education system must be more accountable to parents and taxpayers. Too many students leave high school without basic knowledge or skills. American education should be more competitive, particularly given the amount of money that taxpayers invest.
On the other hand, national standards and testing are unlikely to overcome these deficiencies. These problems are too deeply ingrained in the power and incentive structure of the public education system. A national standards debate threatens to distract from these fundamental issues. Centralized standard-setting would force parents and other taxpayers to relinquish one of their most powerful tools for school improvement: control of the academic content, standards, and testing through their state and local policymakers. Moreover, it is unclear that national standards would establish a target of excellence rather than standardization, a uniform tendency toward mediocrity and information that is more useful to bureaucrats who distribute funding than it is to parents who are seeking to direct their children’s education.
Common national standards and testing will not deliver on proponents’ promises. Rather than addressing the misalignment of power and incentives from which many public education problems arise, national standards and testing would further complicate these same problems. An effort by the Clinton administration to produce national standards and tests during the 1990s was roundly rejected because of strong opposition among Members of Congress, state leaders, and others. This renewed push for common national standards and assessments should be similarly resisted.
Instead, federal policy can improve the alignment of power and incentives in public education by enhancing transparency of existing accountability tools and providing flexibility in program funding for states to do the same. State policy should advance systemic reforms that better align power and incentives with educational outcomes, including enhanced accountability and parental empowerment through educational choice. By pursuing this combination of reforms, Americans can better address the core issues that continue to inhibit meaningful education reform.
Misconceptions About the Promise of National Standards and Testing
Advocates paint the national standards and testing movement as the key missing ingredient in K–12 education reform while dismissing concerns that such standards would lead to further misalignment of power and incentives in American education. The following are a few of the most frequently cited arguments in favor of national standards and tests:
Misconception #1: National standards and tests will make U.S. students more competitive with their global counterparts. Proponents point to international evaluation measures such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, in which American students rank in the middle of the performance distribution. Proponents note that countries that outperform the United States have national standards and that the United States needs national standards to move up in the ranking.
But the relationship between existence of standards and strong educational outcomes is not clear. While the countries that outperform the United States on international tests have national standards, so do most of those countries that score lower than the United States. Canada handily outscores the United States on international exams but has no national standards. Even the relationship between the quality of state standards in the United States and academic performance is weak and inconsistent across subject areas.
More careful attention is needed to understand the role that national standards play in other countries before asserting that national standards would add the same value in the United States. Alternatively, state standards and tests might be a closer analogy to standards and assessment systems in countries with populations the size of American states. There are limits to international comparisons in education given the size, diversity, and federal system of the United States.
Misconception #2: National standards are necessary so that parents can understand how their children’s academic achievement compares to that of other students across the country. The Common Core State Standards Initiative claims that “the common core state standards will enable participating states to work together to make expectations clear to parents, teachers, and the general public.” The case for national standards and testing, however, has neither addressed the question of why current tools are inadequate to inform parents about their children’s educational progress nor specified with much precision why Americans should expect the proposed system to improve the situation. Moreover, rather than making public schools more accountable to families, the new regime is likely to make them more responsive to a centralized scorekeeper. In this way, national standards and testing fail to address the critical problems of power and incentive structures in public education today.
Rather than making public schools more accountable to families, the new regime is likely to make them more responsive to a centralized scorekeeper.
What kind of information do parents need about their children’s educational performance? First, they need to know whether their children are mastering the curriculum content. State criterion-referenced tests, which measure a student’s mastery of the content outlined by state standards, currently supply this kind of information. Parents also need to know that when the state test determines that, for example, a child has mastered third-grade content, the child is keeping pace with third-grade students across the country. In other words, parents need to know how rigorous their state standards and tests are. To provide this information, some states also offer norm-referenced tests, which measure student achievement compared to other students nationally.
Another tool that can provide comparative information is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is administered to a sample of students in each state. In this way NAEP provides an external “audit” and common gauge on the quality of state standards and tests.
The meaningful information that parents and other taxpayers need is already available. The tools already exist to supply straightforward information on student, teacher, and school performance—sometimes referred to as report cards on the school system. All states are currently required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to create such report cards. Some states, such as Florida and Massachusetts, supply more detailed reporting and straightforward information than others. What has been missing in some other cases is transparency about that information. If access to information has been inadequate, that does not justify a national standards and testing regime. Rather, policies should insist on clear reporting of the essential data to parents and other taxpayers.
Public policy should also empower parents to act on that information. Parents need not only information about their children’s educational standing but also the power to do something about it. In many states, parents lack any recourse to remove their children from underperforming schools.
If the relevant information to empower parents currently exists, does the United States need a new national standards and testing regime? According to advocates of new national standards and testing, existing tests are inadequate. NAEP holds no sway over teachers and students because results are not reported by schools or students. The curriculum-based exams developed at great expense by states in recent years are unacceptable, they say, because differences among the tests make national comparisons difficult.
These arguments show the considerable difference that a new national standards and testing system would make: It would empower the federal government. National comparisons are valuable for those who make national decisions; a national exam that has influence over curricula is a useful tool for national policymakers. National standards and assessments would provide an infrastructure and yield information that lines up neatly for federal interventions.
Misconception #3: National standards are necessary because state standards vary in quality. Some states, such as Massachusetts, California, Indiana, and Virginia, have highly regarded standards. A number of other states have uneven quality of standards across subjects, and some are not up to par generally. Teachers union pressure, pervasive political correctness, and pedagogical and content disputes hamper the quality of state standards.
The variation in state standards is one of the most frequently cited reasons for adopting national standards and tests. But the same pressures that detract from the quality of many state standards are likely to plague national standards as well. As a result, the rigor and content of national standards will tend to align with the mean among states, undercutting states with higher quality standards.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refers to the varying quality of state standards as “50 different goal posts.” That is a catchy phrase, but it begs the question of whether the national standards movement is more concerned with uniformity than it is with excellence. Uniform minimum-competency standards on a national level would provide a one-size-fits-all approach that would likely lead to decreased emphasis on advanced work and a generally dumbed-down curriculum.
Centralized standards and testing would eliminate the possibility of competitive pressure for increasing standards of excellence.
The Failure to Address Fundamental Problems in American Education
Contrary to the claims of proponents, the stubborn persistence of more fundamental problems in American education makes it unlikely that national standards and tests would substantially improve educational outcomes. Ultimately, reform strategies must address the fundamental power and incentive structures in public education and configure them in a way that is most likely to increase the quality of educational outcomes.
Currently, two major factors exert the most influence generally on public education and introduce motivations that can compete with the objective of improving student educational outcomes: teachers union power and funding incentives.
Teacher unions exert influence because of their mandatory dues-paying membership and contract-negotiating power. Their interests (including job security, salaries, and benefits) should be understood as distinct from student educational outcome objectives.
Funding incentives are a powerful motivator that is also distinct from the student learning objective. In particular, federal funding has had influence far beyond its 10 percent share of local school funding since the advent of systemic education reform in the 1990s.
Between 1965 and the early 1990s, the federal education role consisted in categorical education programs, designed to address a specific issue (high-poverty schools, for instance) or population (such as non-English speakers). Beginning with Goals 2000 during the Clinton administration, federal policy began to pursue a standards-based systemic reform agenda, expanding to stipulate criteria that have school- and system-wide influence, not just discrete programmatic application as is generally the case with categorical programs.
No Child Left Behind is a good example of the systemic influence of the federal funding incentive. In exchange for federal funding, NCLB required states to test at specific intervals (using state exams), with the requirement that all students be proficient in math, English, and science by 2014. States, districts, and schools must demonstrate adequate yearly progress toward that goal in order to continue to receive federal funding.
At face value, this appears to be a push for higher standards. In reality, some states have dumbed down their definition of proficiency on state tests in the interest of receiving federal funds. Federal funding is an incentive that can trump interest in actual progress on student outcomes. The two goals can and do diverge when power and incentives are misaligned.
Meanwhile, parents and students have a much weaker voice in the current power and incentive structure: They have neither the power to withhold funding nor collective bargaining authority. On the other hand, they have the most at stake in children’s ultimate educational success and, therefore, the greatest vested interest in quality outcomes for students. Positive student outcomes are more likely to result from the alignment of incentives of those with the most at stake in students’ educational outcomes.
National standards would force parents and taxpayers to surrender one of their most powerful tools for improving their schools: control of academic content, standards, and testing.
National standards and tests do not fundamentally alter this misalignment between basic power and incentives in public education today. They will not produce the promised outcomes. More disturbingly, the initiative to create and implement national standards and tests is likely to detract further from the real reforms that would align the incentives and power in public education so that they lead to better outcomes.
But national standards and testing would not just fail to empower parents. National standards would force parents and taxpayers to surrender one of their most powerful tools for improving their schools: control of academic content, standards, and testing. Moreover, a national criterion-referenced test will inevitably lead to a national curriculum—a further misalignment of means and ends in education intended to equip self-governing citizens for liberty, and not a prospect most Americans would embrace.
When President Jimmy Carter was intrigued by a national test proposed by Senator Claiborne Pell (D–R.I.) in 1977, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano warned that “[a]ny set of test questions that the federal government prescribed should surely be suspect as a first step toward a national curriculum…. In its most extreme form, national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.”
What State Policymakers Should Do
Strengthen state-based accountability systems. Instead of signing on to common standards that will drive state curricula, state education leaders should strengthen state standards and tests. States should follow the example of models like Massachusetts (prior to its adoption of Common Core) or Virginia in creating solid standards and aligned assessments. State standards can also be strengthened by continually raising the bar on achievement. As students reach content proficiency, the proficiency bar should be raised to further challenge students to meet the demands of college coursework and competitive careers.
States with outstanding standards and tests have taken great pains to ensure proper and precise learning sequencing.
The Bay State requires teachers to be proficient in all aspects of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and in all subject matter content, and it aligns teacher testing to state standards. Mastery of general content knowledge and subject matter knowledge required by teachers helps to ensure that standards are aligned both horizontally, so that students learn content aligned by grade level, and vertically, to eliminate redundant content and verify subject mastery. An initial criticism of the Common Core standards was that there were “grade-sequencing problems in some places … such as requiring a math skill in one grade level without prerequisite skills in the previous grade level.”
Provide school-performance information to parents and taxpayers. States should publish the standards along with cut scores (passing-grade thresholds for a particular test) and clear definitions of what it means for a student to be deemed proficient. States could publish this information in a Consumer Reports–type guide that is accessible to parents and taxpayers. At the university level, parents and students already have access to this type of information through independent reviewers such as the Princeton Review, the College Board, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
It is critical to define proficiency in a subject; assessing student performance without such a definition is like reading a map without a scale. In order to ensure that the public has a clear understanding of a state’s cut scores, the scores should be published for tested subjects with an explanation of how those scores were determined.
Transparency is the first step. Empowering parents to hold schools accountable through school choice is the important next step.
Empower parents to act on school-performance information. Ultimately, providing parents with clear information about school performance is useful only when parents can act on that information. Transparency is the first step. Empowering parents to hold schools accountable through school choice is the important next step to improve educational outcomes. Parents in Florida, for example, have access to high-quality information about their children’s school performance and, as a result, are able to make informed decisions about school enrollment.
Schools and districts in the Sunshine State are graded on a commonsense, straightforward A-to-F grading scale; parents understand that it is better to have a child in a school that has received an A than it is to have that child in a school that has received an F. Additionally, parents in Florida have access to education tax credits, private school choice for special-needs students, virtual education, charter schools, and public school choice. Transparency about school performance enables parents to be well informed; these many choices hold schools accountable to parents.
What Federal Policymakers Should Do
Federal policymakers should pursue policies that will increase transparency in state accountability systems and improve accountability to parents. To those ends, policymakers should provide states with increased flexibility and freedom from federal red tape so that their focus is aligned not with the federal funding incentive or the demands of teachers unions, but with direct accountability to parents and students.
Mrs. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Ms. Marshall is the Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This article is an update of their paper “Why National Standards Won’t Fix American Education: Misalignment of Power and Incentives,” originally published by The Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2010.
IT SOUNDS LIKE A STORY President Obama might tell: Donna Baker, a disabled and retired state worker, lost her home in the face of mounting medical bills. Yet the culprit was not “substandard” insurance but a callous, out-of-control local government. Washington State’s Thurston County officials decided protecting a gopher species was more important than protecting people like Donna. Her retirement investment—a 20-acre parcel of land—became nearly worthless to her.
When the Freedom Foundation told this story, people saw the injustice of these government regulations. People started waking up to the idea that government rules—although they may sound good at the outset—ultimately have serious impacts on individuals like Donna.
Washington State has trended politically liberal. It is considered dark blue, and while perhaps not as “progressively” hopeless as New York City or California, there is a wash of special interests who want to descend into Big Government nirvana as quickly as possible.
Liberal politicians, an expanding bureaucracy, and outside “environmental” special interests have made traditional routes of political change impossible. Lobbying conservative ideas is like spitting into a hurricane-force wind.
Sadly, these liberal attitudes have percolated down into local government and are pervasive throughout communities. More and more, people in Washington State are less self-reliant and look towards government as their personal safety net.
Like most conservative think tanks across America, we start our day asking: “How do we change this trend?” We have found it best to start with a local, personal story.
After we told Donna Baker’s story, hundreds of citizens began turning up at town halls, testifying at public meetings, writing letters, putting up yard signs, starting new property rights groups, and getting involved locally. The local bureaucracy and political elite were shocked to find real citizen opposition to their central-planning schemes.
Although the final chapter in her local government’s efforts remains unwritten, Donna Baker’s story shifted the political momentum in her community. Thousands of people will never view their local government the same again.
Then the shift trickled northwest to San Juan County, one of the “bluest” counties in Washington State, where over 70 percent of voters support Obama. The county consists exclusively of islands located at the Puget Sound’s entrance. The San Juans have become a laboratory of the left and a petri dish of “environmental” policies.
Some citizens got involved in local government to oppose new environmental regulations but to no avail. When the Freedom Foundation started to record personal stories, the political tide began to change.
We told a story about how Nick Jones, a local organic farmer, had to close his farm stand on Lopez Island due to county regulations. Then we told a story about how San Juan County forced Charles Dalton to stop growing blueberries. When San Juan Islanders heard these stories, they began to realize government was out of control. Short YouTube videos circulated widely throughout San Juan County and put the well-funded, entrenched “environmental” group “Friends of the San Juans” on defense.
Citizens filed public records requests and used a newly-created blog to tell the truth about government’s central-planning schemes. They created a political action committee, grew their local associations, and began to engage local government. When the next election came around, only one of the left-wing elites’ favored County Council candidates succeeded. The rest were defeated by residents much more concerned about local government’s abuses. San Juan County won’t become conservative like rural Oklahoma any time soon, but its trend toward big government policies has changed.
These local, personal stories—and others like them—became the basis for our video series called “Tales of Tyranny,” which is changing Washington State’s political culture even beyond the Thurston and San Juan Counties. These stories woke people up and got them engaged with their local government.
Traditionally conservative think tanks have one fatal flaw: They believe their ideas are the best, and people need to understand them. Then the world would be made right. Think tanks pine to change the minds of average citizens while spending their limited resources in an echo chamber of limited audiences: politicians, intellectuals, academics, and business leaders.
Yet activists engage on issues important to them and are exceptionally resistant to top-down approaches. That’s why we at the Freedom Foundation have shifted from a command-and-control model to a servant-leadership model.
Innovative activism can include parade floats, costumes, issue-sign campaigns, issue-based flyer campaigns, YouTube videos, and other activities that draw attention even from a community’s most uninvolved citizens.
Beyond storytelling, there are two leadership opportunities think tanks can provide:
1. Encourage active involvement in local political races.
Most activists watch national issues very closely, not realizing that success in local political races is far more achievable. We encourage them to find or recruit freedom-friendly candidates or even run for local office themselves. We train them on how to prepare a winning campaign at a local level.
We focus on this issue because most of today’s congressmen and state legislators all started in local office somewhere. The more liberty-minded people we can engage in local office, the more likely that tomorrow’s crop of legislators will trend toward freedom-oriented ideas. If you can’t change city hall, what makes you think you can change Washington, D.C.?
2. Train local activists to focus on local issues and engage on those issues in a friendly, but confrontational way.
We encourage unique activism, sometimes political theatre, and it needs to be done in a confrontational manner. Not angry, but assertive. We are limited only by our imagination. Innovative activism can include parade floats, costumes, issue-sign campaigns, issue-based flyer campaigns, YouTube videos, and other activities that draw attention even from a community’s most uninvolved citizens.
Big-government politicians and bureaucrats are rarely prepared to deal with local activism. When they get more attention than they expect, they frequently react poorly. Regardless, innovative activism should draw attention to the critical issues and ramp up political pressure on elected officials who need to remember they work for the people.
We believe think tanks are key to providing local activists with this training and education. Large, federally-focused organizations are not able to build the local support or understanding to do so. However, organizations like the Freedom Foundation are close enough to focus on local communities throughout their states.
We can’t afford to ignore this battle for freedom or activists’ critical role in changing our nation. Rather than concentrating efforts on white papers destined to languish on shelves, we must work to implement our ideas in our communities.
If we do, we will change the political cultures of our states so we no longer find stories like Donna Baker’s to tell.
Mr. Morgan is the Property Rights Director at the Freedom Foundation, a Washington State-based free-market think tank.
IT ISN’T EVERYDAY that a free-market think tank uses a clip from Ellen to illustrate an idea. Or partners with the “mainstream media” to deliver content to students attending “government schools.” Or offers moral support to foreign-born strangers testifying in a U.S. courthouse.
Yet, the James Madison Institute (JMI) has done all of these things. Proudly. And when you hear the explanation behind each of our curious actions, you just might want to go out and do something that (at first blush) seems equally suspicious.
The Ellen Episode
Several years ago, a young Florida teen named Willow Tufano started selling used goods on Craigslist. Over the course of an 18-month period, she earned and saved $6,000. One night, Willow overheard her mother talking about a house nearby that had once been valued at $100,000, but was now being offered in a short sale for much less. “I’d like to buy that house,” 14-year-old Willow announced. And buy it she did. For a mere $12,000. Consequently, Willow now has tenants more than twice her age paying her $700 in rent each month (which she’s using to buy out her Mom who put up half the money for the home purchase).
Needless to say, Willow’s story is one JMI loves to tell. We’ve written about her in a USA TODAY op-ed, featured Willow in several of our publications, and made her the focal point of a short film (which generated fan mail from Florida Gov. Rick Scott). That short film begins, interestingly, with a clip of liberal icon Ellen DeGeneres making a fuss over Willow on her TV show, Ellen.
Now, we don’t fault Ellen for celebrating this remarkable teenager (even though, ahem, Willow’s earnings place her in the top 1 percent of all teenage homeowners). Indeed, we believe Willow’s story helps illustrate a point JMI is always looking to make—time-honored virtues like hard work, self-reliance, and entrepreneurial spunk never really go out of style. Why, even the avant-garde will often go ga-ga when they see these traits displayed in compelling stories like Willow’s.
Partnering with the “Mainstream Media”
One of the JMI publications featuring Willow’s story is a booklet on the wise use of money called All About the Benjamins. Produced in association with the News-in-Education departments at Florida’s major newspapers, this JMI publication goes out to Florida public schools every January during Thrift Week. To date, more than 600,000 copies of this 12-page tabloid—and another JMI produces for Celebrate Freedom Week in September—have been distributed to Florida high school students.
Some people find it surprising that JMI would partner with the “mainstream media” to produce publications distributed to “government schools.” But we see nothing peculiar here. America’s founding principles ought to be taught in every public school. They belong in mainstream newspapers. And they ought to be tied to more recent debates in American life—which is why Celebrate Freedom notes that Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked the Founders in his “I Have a Dream” speech. And why All About the Benjamins upholds numerous 20th century paragons of thrift, including Florida educator Mary McLeod Bethune, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, and Gatorade creator Robert Cade.
Supporting Foreign-Born Strangers
In addition to providing Celebrate Freedom to Florida students, JMI also distributes these booklets to new citizens taking part in naturalization ceremonies in our state. “This is a small way that we can affirm their decision to become naturalized citizens,” says JMI Executive Vice President Becky Liner. And it’s also a good way for JMI to seize a “teachable moment” for area students.
JMI periodically sponsors a special program in which native-born high school students learn about the naturalization process, take the citizenship test that immigrants must pass in order to become U.S. citizens, attend a naturalization ceremony with JMI leaders, and then interact with the new citizens at a celebratory reception afterwards.
“Many of the students that take part in this program come away with a newfound respect for those whom Ronald Reagan liked to call ‘Americans by choice,’” reports JMI president Bob McClure. “I think the students also leave with a newfound appreciation for what it means to be an American.”
American Exceptionalism (According to a Canadian)
Naturalization ceremonies aren’t the only places where JMI seeks to cultivate students’ appreciation for American ideals. Throughout the year, JMI hosts seminars and book clubs for college students, sponsors “Madison Movie Nights” (showing liberty-themed films) on college campuses, and provides speakers for Boys State, Girls State, Constitution Day, and other occasions.
One of our most popular speakers on American Exceptionalism is a Canadian—The Heritage Foundation’s own David Azerrad. “David’s enthusiasm for America’s founding principles is infectious,” Liner notes. “And students often find it interesting to hear a Canadian marveling at the Founders’ genius.”
While most of JMI’s civic education programs are designed to reach high school and college students, we do use historical re-enactors periodically to put on educational programs for younger students. In fact, one of JMI’s most-celebrated programs is a fun-filled historical quiz game featuring a Ben Franklin impersonator. First played at a Thrift Week event in rural Franklin County, “R U Smarter than a Franklin County 5th Grader?” has now been played at elementary school assemblies and home-school conventions all over Florida.
Offbeat? More Like Upbeat
While some of JMI’s methodologies for reaching students may not fit the mold of what free-market think tanks normally do, the true tenor of our work is upbeat more than offbeat. We believe America’s founding ideals are remarkable. We think liberty ought to be celebrated. And we aren’t afraid to try new ways to communicate these ideas to young people.
Maybe that explains why we’ve used a clip from Ellen, partnered with the “mainstream media,” offered moral support to foreign-born strangers, and done all sorts of curious things. Proudly.
Mr. Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute, where he directs the Preston A. Wells, Jr. Center for American Ideals.