I attended a forum today on No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the major federal education law. The event took place in a U.S. House office building on Capitol Hill; it was organized by the American Youth Policy Forum.
I have long wondered how the federal government gains so much power simply by spending $30 billion/year on education from kindergarten through 12th grade. That’s only 8 percent of education spending. NCLB is extremely unpopular in some areas, so I never understood why no local jurisdictions (or even states) have turned down the federal aid. Compliance is not mandatory; a state could pull out of the NCLB regime if it were willing to forego the money. From the complaints of many education leaders, it sounds as if the dollar costs imposed by NCLB are greater than the benefits. Today I learned that while federal monies cover 8 percent of the cost of k-12 education, they fund about half of state education agencies’ costs. In other words, half of the salary positions in state departments of ed are directly dependent on federal funding. So these state agencies feel a need to comply with NCLB; and they have regulatory power over local jurisdictions. I don’t know if this is true, but the source was knowledgeable, and it makes sense.
I’m with Cole Campbell at a Kettering Foundation event in Ohio. Cole is the former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a consistently interesting thinker about the media. It so happens that he is also the current “guest blogger” on PressThink. I strongly recommend his piece, which is about the way that the press has created the Democratic primary story line so far. Howard Dean is now the almost-dead-former-front-runner. His “goose is cooked,” according to the latest punditry. But why was Dean the front-runner–indeed, the presumptive nominee–and why is he now on the ropes? All that voters have done is to participate in the overlooked Washington primary and the Iowa caucuses (where just 61,000 people participated). The rest of the epic of dramatic rises and collapses is all a media construction. Cole is able to call the press on this because they were wrong; Dean lost when they predicted that he would win. In the typical case, they are equally or more influential, but their predictions come true, so hardly anyone complains.
Cole adds that reporters refused to take any blame for their mistaken predictions, instead treating Dean as responsible for failing to live up to their expectations of him. Cole concludes:
Conventional wisdom was turned on its head tonight,’ NBC’s Tim Russert said during Monday night?s broadcast coverage of the Iowa caucus. Russert never owned up to who the keepers of conventional wisdom are– he and his colleagues. The press tells itself that it is not implicated in the politics it molds and shapes. It presents itself as a campaign innocent. But everyone involved knows better.
It occurs to me that Dean’s infamous scream during his “concession speech” gave the press some cover. They should have been saying: “We’re sorry that we called the election wrong.” Instead, they were able to say: “Dean’s really a loser. Who knew?”
(Written in Oxford, OH): There is already too much post-Iowa punditry, but here are two points I would stress:
The two candidates who were endorsed by labor unions each got about 20 percent of union household votes. Unions were thus completely unable to deliver their own rank-and-file in a Democratic contest with a small turnout. This puts an exclamation point on a long sentence about the decline of labor power in America. I already thought that the SEIU and AFSCME endorsements of Dean reflected weakness. He had no significant prior relationship with them and owed them nothing. But they thought he had the best chance to win, and wanted to back a winner. In the old days, unions aspired to make winners, not ride along behind them.
There were substantial differences between the preferences that people expressed in “entrance polls” and the actual Caucus results. As reported, people changed their votes once inside the Caucuses. One letter to today’s New York Times claims that this is evidence of deliberation. “The heart of democracy is not pulling levers or punching out chads; it is government by discussion.” Another letter-writer complains that people were pressured by the “awkward social occasion” of a caucus to change their votes in favor of popular, mainstream candidates. Instead of deliberation, this writer sees peer-pressure. And many commentators detect strategic voting. People shifted to their second choices when they saw that their first choices lacked sufficient support to win delegates. I would say that deliberation is great; strategic voting is OK; and peer-pressure is bad.
If we assume that there was some deliberation in Iowa (and not much peer-pressure), then we face a classic tradeoff. The Caucuses are especially valuable forms of democratic participation, but also especially difficult: lengthy, complicated, and “socially awkward.” Thus they trade quantity of participation for quality. This is often a choice in the design of democratic institutions.
We’re working on a press release to report that young people (ages 18-29) quadrupled their turnout in the Iowa Caucuses, compared to 2000. They voted at considerably higher rates than the 30-44 age group and represened almost as big a proportion of Caucus goers (17%) as of adult Iowa citizens (20%). If youth always participated at this rate, the 40 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 would be a major voting bloc.
There’s another lesson for those of us who are interested in youth participation: young people may vote, but they aren’t predictable. Slate quotes one Dean precinct captain who said, “I think if we could blame [Dean’s loss] on anyone, blame it on the 18- to 25-year-olds, because they were nonexistent.” Actually, they existed, and they turned out, but 35% of them went for Kerry and only 25% for Dean.
Christopher Dickey, who covers Iraq for Newsweek, has decided against carrying a gun when he’s in Baghdad. He doesn’t think it would make him any safer. But he recognizes that reporters are in danger there; 19 have died so far. And he’s increasingly unsure that it’s worth risking journalists’ lives to report the news from Iraq to an indifferent public. The TV networks have already cut their daily Iraq report to just over five minutes a day; and the public also seems to be losing interest. Dickey writes: “As my friend the newspaperman told me on a brief visit back to the States, ‘You talk to people here about what’s happening in Iraq and their eyes glaze over after two seconds. I mean, even members of your own family!'”
Dickey mentions deaths (of American military personnel and Iraqis) as topics that reporters do and should cover. But do we need such directly observed reports of violence in Iraq? Perhaps–failure to report casualties might give the impression that things were going better than they are, and it would prevent the public from mourning the dead. On the other hand, some might say that Americans are rightly somewhat inured to such stories. Perhaps we need a different kind of reporting: journalism that discusses deeper and more lasting issues.
I personally am not interested in detailed accounts of the latest car-bombings, but I do want to know how well Americans are doing at nation-buildng. If our soldiers and officers are doing a great job “on the ground,” that is a story that should be celebrated as a model for civic work at home. If things are not going well, we should learn from their mistakes. Journalism about nation-building would be dangerous, and it might be overlooked by many Americans; but perhaps it would be more valuable than blow-by-blow descriptions of violence.