December 29, 2008

Matt Miller's choice of a model politician on education policy is weird

Matt Miller is back with a fundamentally outlandish idea:

At a moment when we've basically nationalized the banking, mortgage and insurance industries, a little nationalization of school operating costs is in tune with the times.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a little outlandishness, and he uses funding inequalities as the basic rationale to push a combination of anticyclical stimulus, purse-strings incentives, and maybe the destruction of school boards. But like Mike Petrilli, I am a little skeptical, though for a different reason. Apart from the merits of revenue-sharing, there's something odd in his appeal to the authority of Richard Nixon:

In the end, of course, Nixon found he had bigger problems to deal with. But he left a blueprint for Mr. Obama to follow.

I don't know if Miller meant to be funny and refer to Watergate, but it's hard to figure out why Miller reached out to Nixon for an example, when Nixon's primary de facto education initiative was the relationship between his Southern strategy and civil-rights enforcement, and Nixon used local-control rhetoric frequently in his arguments against busing. There's a reason why Nixon's revenue-sharing plan was first floated and then killed: a federal funding-equalization case was rising through the courts, and any sane domestic policy adviser would have figured out tentative plans for responding to a potential blockbuster decision requiring equalized funding.

I suspect that archival documents would identify San Antonio v. Rodriguez as the primary motivation behind the plan Miller thinks was a technocratic bit of genius. But when the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the federal constitution did not forbid funding inequalities, there was no political reason to push the plan any further, and Nixon would have had no inclination to do so. If Miller wanted to pick a politician who was able to push funding reform without court orders, he'd be much better off writing about former Florida Governor Rubin Askew, who convinced the state's legislature to pass an equalization law in 1973 after it became clear that no court would require the state to do so.

But back to Nixon and the big picture on federal education policy. Yes, the 1972 Education Amendments had Title IX and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act had Section 504, but those clauses were inserted by Congress, and Title IX regulations did not appear until several years later. The most prominent institutional contributions to federal education policy that began inside the Nixon Administration were the creation of the National Institute of Education, which I have seen and heard generally attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's inside advocacy, and NAEP, at least partially credited to Nixon's first education commissioner, James Allen, who resigned early in the Nixon administration (and died in a plane crash). Petrilli has it nailed: the idea of a huge bailout/stimulus/revenue-sharing plan is much closer to Lyndon Johnson than it is to Richard Nixon.

I've been disoriented in the past by Miller's rhetorical gambits, and so my reaction this morning fits with my response to his earlier book The Two-Percent Solution and the introduction to his forthcoming The Tyranny of Dead Ideals. The rhetoric in the intro to Tyranny is filled with a mix of technocratic rhetoric and management-guru "we must change to fit the times" nostrums, as if Miller were a genetic recombination of Marc Tucker and Spencer Johnson. 

There's nothing wrong with being technically superb, which is why I heartily approve Obama's designation of Peter Orszag as head of the Office of Management and Budget. But even if I agreed with all of Miller's policy ideas, there's something odd about his choices of arguments. Essentially, it's hard to build a case for major policy change around technocratic arguments, and I don't think you will find Obama following that path. Consistently in the campaign, he talked about his values and what he argued were shared American values; his stance was not "I'm competent, so trust me" but "Here are my values, and I'm a pretty smart dude." 

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas may be better than its introduction. It's likely to be read widely, and I just hope Miller makes better rhetorical choices in the bulk of the book than he made in the book's introduction or today's op-ed.

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Tags: Matt Miller, Richard Nixon
Posted in Education policy on December 29, 2008 11:27 AM |