Anyone who follows education policy knows that many programs are oversold. Initiatives and bills are touted as groundbreaking, landmark, and unprecedented — often well in advance of any ground broken, land marked, or precedent undone. This is generally part of the political game: to pass a controversial bill or initiative, one has to manufacture the widespread belief that it will have a large and significant impact. But recently this tendency seems to have jumped to a whole new geographic level.
For apparently it is not enough to say anymore that an State education bill will simply transform Colorado. One has to say that what Colorado is doing is so mesmerizing that the rest of the 49 states should stop short and gaze upon us in our resplendent majesty. Witness yesterday’s passage of SB 213, which would revamp the way Colorado finances its school districts, from the perspective of both the Governor and the bill’s primary sponsor:
Is is SB 213 truly “bringing the best accountability and transparency in the nation“ and a “national model for equity and outcomes” [my emphasis]? This is not a confluence of random opinions, it is a pre-meditated talking point weaving its way through the latest debate about education reforms (see this Op-Ed, or comments here). Is it now too low a bar to want to simply improve the state of affairs for the citizens of Colorado? Is the national stage the best place to debut?
For the determination to frame state initiatives as harbingers of national issues feels a bit like a small man who decides to drive a Hummer — a decision driven not by individual needs, but to create a perception that there is something more substantial happening. Far more important than the claim that SB 213 should stretch from sea to shining sea would have been to attract members of both political parties in support. Instead, we have a bill that claims national relevance yet was unable attract a single vote from the relatively proximate other side of the State legislature, and that will be utterly meaningless unless voters improve funding through an estimated $1 billion tax hike in November.
Look, I’m all for big ideas and grand proposals. School finance in Colorado certainly needs a large overhaul, and I think some of SB 213 is genuinely transformational (more is less so). Here is the bill’s 141 pages in all its glory — if someone holds the opinion that the rest of the nation should admire its transparency, accountability and (entirely presumed) outcomes, I stand in awe of their optimism (although they might, for starters, try to explain the transparency and accountability in the Local Revenues section in Part II). But I think it should be enough to say that it is the best bill one might hope for under difficult circumstances, while acknowledging that it falls short of national prominence.
For it’s harder and harder to argue the merits and shortcomings of any policy if all of them are predicated on the idea that they will singularly alter the educational landscape. One of the problems with improving education is a lack of honest assessment of the impact (likely minor) of any single piece of legislation or policy initiative, particularly given the paucity of improvements in outcomes to date. The Innovation Schools Act, CAP4K, SB 191, ProComp and others are the detritus of Colorado’s transformative promises from pervious years. Some have simply not proven to be effective (Innovation School Act, ProComp) others have yet to be implemented (SB 191). With some it will be virtually impossible to tell for years and years (CAP4K). The lesson from all is how hard it is to produce substantive change and meaningful outcomes through policy.
But the claims of importance for education initiatives keep getting bigger and bigger, as if in compensation for the little that has been achieved. I think that is a mistake. The large claims of transformation make us very small indeed.