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No Child Left Behind

Just when I thought that The Note had degenerated into nothing but insight-free chatter, they actually produce an important insight (although not without the obligatory sophomoric references to colleagues):

You don't have to be Laura Blumenfeld (but it helps … ) to understand that a big part of Dean's success is that he connects with his listeners.

But he doesn't connect because he is some sort of spell-binding speaker.

And he doesn't just connect because of his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Dean actually has an integrated, coherent critique of why (to steal, yet again, from Bill Clinton) America should fire the guy in the job now and hire him on to take over.

One not-small example:

Well over a year ago, before the New York Times had given Dean stories Ornstein Banishment treatment (and then given up and allowed them again); before magazine covers became run-of-the-mill; before even Howard Fineman saw what was coming — before all that, Howard Dean was criticizing his party for signing on to No Child Left Behind.

Dean would tell any reporter or voter who would listen exactly what was going to happen with the law and why it wouldn't work and why Democrats in Washington had made both a substantive and political mistake by helping the president pass it.

Dean "knew" NCLB behind was not going to work out exactly as planned because he was a governor; because he didn't vote for it; because he knows how education works in the states; because he was confident that the Bush economic plan would keep full funding from being available; and because he had a good enough political ear to hear how well received his attacks on it by Democratic (and other) audiences from sea to shining sea.

This is a superb explanation of one of Dean's strengths. (And I'm not a Dean supporter, as the four regular readers of The Decembrist know.) It is the ability to see around corners, to see where things are going, not just where they are. But I think there's more to it than a better understanding of the fraud that was No Child Left Behind, it's also that Dean wasn't forced into a position where he had to decide whether to vote for it or not. The Republicans have been superb at forcing Democrats into situations where they had to either vote for something that they knew would be a disaster, or vote against it and have to explain, at some length and in a difficult environment, why they opposed something they said they were for (better schools with accountability, Medicare prescription drug coverage, ridding Iraq of bad weapons).

This is not just the trap that comes with being in Congress; it's the trap that comes with being the minority in Congress, especially when the majority knows it has the power to create these situations. It also requires a majority that doesn't much care whether the result of creating such traps is programs that no one likes, of which this is one and Medicare prescription drugs, if they ever pass something, will be another. After all, it all just shows that government sucks, right?

On the specific issue of No Child Left Behind, look at a Google News search on the topic. I doubt people in the Beltway quite realize this yet, although they will, but hundreds of small and medium-sized newspapers around the country have been running stories about the failures of NCLB. They range from the tragedy of declaring schools that are dramatically improving to be failing, to the fraud that is NCLB's promise to allow inter-district transfers. This is probably the most consistent and damaging attack on a Bush administration program that is actually being heard at the local level. You couldn't buy this kind of local coverage. And the anger is coming from school superintendents, principals, teachers -- all respected members of any community -- and parents of young kids, also known as swing voters.

This could be a huge vulnerability for Bush, if the Democrats can figure out how to deal with it, or have a nominee who doesn't have to explain why he voted for it. (The only Democratic Senators who didn't were Leahy and Jeffords (from Dean's state), Hollings, Dayton, Feingold, and Wellstone. Good for them.)

By the way, here's a superb short account of the Politics of No Child Left Behind.

I think I'll have a little more on this in the next week or two and some provocative thoughts on vouchers.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 14, 2003 | Permalink


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