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Message to Feds: Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road and Call AAA

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The U.S. economy has a flat tire. America's poor have shouted this from their urban and rural communities long before Standard and Poor's decided to care enough to signal a problem by lowering America's AAA credit rating to AA+.

The common problem in both instances is that for more than a decade, federal officials have failed to tackle America's big issues, such as meaningful investments in our infrastructure and struggling communities that would breathe air into our flat economy.

Instead, they have simply played politics and repeatedly kicked the proverbial can down the road while other countries have swiftly passed us. Rather than moving a jobs bill, they debate the debt ceiling. Rather than sustained infrastructure investments and generating revenues, they make draconian cuts. Rather than a 10-year national comprehensive education agenda, they propose competitive programs and initiatives that affect a few schools, states or communities for a few years.

This approach has to stop. U.S. leaders would do well to seek advice from those countries that still have their AAA rating: Singapore, Finland and Canada, to name a few. These countries' leaders would likely boldly tell us that the best sustainable economic stimulus is investing in education.

One thing is clear: even with Congress increasing the debt ceiling and dramatically cutting spending, the economy must grow if these steps are to have any impact. That means sustained investments in education and job creation.

Congress has been given an opportunity to outline a 10-year comprehensive plan through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). But again, instead of tackling the big issues, they consistently look for tweaks and ways to maintain the status quo. When asked about Congress' approach to addressing ESEA, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) has repeatedly noted that he'd like to get up to three smaller bills done over the summer before tackling bigger issues.

This congressional proclivity to punt on big issues and maintain the status quo is matched only by the Department of Education's schizophrenic approach, often referred to as being hard on goals and soft on means while simultaneously attaching unproven conditions and means to federal funding through initiatives such as Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.

In the latest edition of this mixed messaging, the Department of Education announced that Secretary Arne Duncan would use his waiver authority to relieve some states of ESEA's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) mandate, if they are willing to accept more of the Department of Education's conditions or means.

This is a dangerous course.

First, it relieves Congress of the pressure needed to address and fix ESEA and chart a comprehensive course for our nation's education systems. If no waivers are granted and every school district doesn't reach proficiency by 2014 as required by NCLB, it's likely that most Congressional representatives will have a failing school in their district -- something that wouldn't sit well with their constituents.

Second, it allows the Executive Branch to arbitrarily bypass Congress and place new conditions on fulfilling NCLB. The waiver authority was not written into law to create a window for an Executive Branch to insert new accountability burdens. It was added to relieve states of existing ineffective or burdensome mandates that impeded a state from achieving high quality outcomes. Thus, when using the waiver authority, the Secretary must show how "the waiving of these requirements will increase the quality of student instruction and improve student academic achievement" and not how the imposition of new conditions will achieve the goal. Based on the Department's approach, we could likely see a new cycle of conditions imposed on states every election cycle or every two to four years. This is far too frequent for the stability in both policy and practice that states and localities need for accountability measures to be effective.

The Department's approach holds these waivers as another Washington political gold nugget that rarely produces a productive end. While one administration may believe a state that adopts common academic standards is worthy of the nugget, another administration could grant a waiver to states that only allow for-profit charter schools to operate. If the waiver is used, it should be applied to all states because the Department believes that the existing policy is ineffective. If the Department by admission of granting the waiver believes that the policy it is waiving is ineffective, then it would be bad public policy and immoral for that same Department to leave students in any state subject to that ineffective policy only because the state leaders have yet to kiss the ring.

Finally, and more emblematic of federal officials' small solutions for big problems, the waiver doesn't fix the flat. It again is a kick down the road, leaving states, parents, teachers and students to find their own path to providing all children an opportunity to learn.

This is the same level of political inefficiency that led to the decline of the stock market and the nation's credit-rating. As a result, the opportunity for success for a new generation in America is plunging. The Atlantic takes on the issue in its September cover story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" The story cites a 2010 Pew study showing that a typical middle class family lost 23 percent of its wealth since the recession began, versus just 12 percent in the upper class. But the less educated -- those who are not even in the middle class -- are getting hit hardest. The article added that in March the national unemployment rate was 12 percent for people with only a high-school diploma, 4.5 percent for college graduates and 2 percent for those with a professional degree.

Our AAA colleagues likely will tell us that the U.S. democracy and economy will not grow with approaches that celebrate structural changes over substantives changes. It takes an honest assessment of what we are doing that is keeping us flat. Whether proposed by a Republican or a Democratic administration, we must admit when policies fail. That means admitting that NCLB is broken. But it also means acknowledging that Race to the Top, as a frame for a solution, is equally flawed, both as a policy and a brand. New structural changes simply mean that students are doing more running in place than racing to the top, with no substantive increase in students crossing the finish line. Thus, it has been a failed effort even in the few winning states, and while the majority of states remain in the starting blocks because they failed to receive any RTT resources as the funding diminishes. At the end of the day, the opportunity gaps grow and the economy remains flat.

Economies and democracies, like planes, soar only when you fuel them. You can cut the fuel and lower the altitude, but eventually this approach will only lead the plane to stall or crash.

The education system provides the long-term fuel for economic growth. Thus AAA nations have focused on comprehensive approaches to address issues of equity and excellence through the system that touches the majority of their futures: the public education system.

So let's recap:

  1. Institute a more equitable federal tax system by following billionaire Warren Buffet's advice and raising taxes on him and those like him.
  2. Articulate a comprehensive federal 2020 plan to provide all students a fair and substantive opportunity to learn.
  3. As a part of a three-prong fiscal accountability plan, a) evaluate how states are distributing existing resources to ensure smart and educationally sound spending, b) ensure the equitable distribution of existing resources, and c) target a substantive percentage of new tax revenues specifically toward investments in our education and job-creation infrastructure.

If we ever get beyond our arrogance of power, we will see the downgrade of our credit rating for what it really is: not just an economic indicator, but a signal of our country's declining capacity to solve the big issues that will affect generations to come -- a danger sign on a long and winding road.