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Daily Howler: When their threats and demands don't work, states tend to drop back and punt
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THREATENING CARROLL (PART 2)! When their threats and demands don’t work, states tend to drop back and punt: // link // print // previous // next //

IGNORING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: Almost all pundits have worked extra-hard to avoid the elephant in the room. But uh-oh! On Countdown, Keith Olbermann actually mentioned it. How do we know Dick Cheney wasn’t all likkered up? Omigod! He came out and asked:
OLBERMANN (2/14/06): The sheriff`s office, though, issued a statement last night, in the conclusion that there, this was an accident, also said no alcohol had been involved in it. But how would they know that? The sheriff`s office did not interview the vice president for 14 hours after all this happened. And the lower-ranking sheriff`s officers who did not know about the scheduling of that interview for Sunday morning had been turned away when they tried to talk to Mr. Cheney on Saturday night.
Duh! This question was obvious. Elsewhere, though, cable pundits broke their backs to avoid asking about the delay in Cheney’s interview. Cheney wouldn’t meet with the sheriff till Sunday—which may, of course, have been perfectly innocent. On the other hand, The Veep may have been likkered up. It’s the possibility which can’t say its own name—as we see in this morning’s Post, courtesy of Jim VandeHei:
VANDEHEI (2/15/06): Vice President Cheney's slow and unapologetic public response to the accidental shooting of a 78-year-old Texas lawyer is turning the quail-hunting mishap into a political liability for the Bush administration and is prompting senior White House officials to press Cheney to publicly address the issue as early as today, several prominent Republicans said yesterday.

The Republicans said Cheney should have immediately disclosed the shooting Saturday night to avoid even the suggestion of a coverup and should have offered a public apology for his role in accidentally shooting Harry Whittington, a GOP lawyer from Austin.

“To avoid even the suggestion of a coverup?” A coverup of what? VandeHei (or his editors) knew he mustn’t say. The pregnant comment lay unexplained, right there at the start of his article.

Meanwhile, on cable, everyone worked to avoid the obvious question. Poor Dan Abrams, on The Abrams Report! He had almost finished a ten-minute segment. And then one guest (Texas attorney Brian Wice) had to haul off and say it:

WICE (2/14/06): What`s interesting, one quick point, everybody seemed to go out of their way to say there was no horseplay or drinking on this trip. In Texas, if there`s no horseplay or drinking, Dan, it`s not hunting.
Dammit! Abrams had almost escaped! The host chuckled weakly, then signed off. Before that, we had heard absurd “analyses” like this, from another guest:
ABRAMS: Chris Downey, former Texas prosecutor, it does not seem like a big deal to me that [the sheriff] waited overnight in what was perceived as a hunting accident to question the vice president.

DOWNEY: No, I`m not troubled by the wait. That doesn’t concern me at all. As a matter of fact, the fact that they did report it and stuck around to be interviewed is certainly an act of good faith on their part, went above and beyond what it is they had to do.

Cheney gets bonus points for being interviewed at all! In the face of such complete, utter nonsense, Abrams knew that he had to stay silent.

On Hardball, meanwhile, Chris Matthews spent 45 minutes battering Cheney for dissing the press, but he knew to avoid that big, hulking elephant. Forget about ignoring the press—why had Cheney avoided the sheriff? Except for Olbermann, everyone knew they had to avoid this bad question.

Final point: Yesterday, the Post editorial board cherry-picked a false report from the Times to say that Cheney did meet with the sheriff (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/06). Today, their bizarre error goes uncorrected. It’s all about that elephant in the room. Let’s state the obvious—Insider Washington has agreed that it must be ignored.

MICHAEL’S FORMULA (PART 3): Michael Kinsley’s recent column was itself a piece of Pure Formula (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/06). With real anger, Kinsley complained about the way Big Dems have been slimed in recent years. But when he finally named the culprits, he listed all the usual suspects! George Will has been doing it, Kinsley proclaimed—and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and all those “talk-radio jockeys.” As members of Kinsley’s class always do, he named a string of conservative targets—and failed to name his own mainstream colleagues and friends, the big players who have actually changed our political history. This is classic a bit of formula—designed to protect Kinsley’s class interests, and those of his owners and friends.

Who knows? Perhaps Kinsley, once brilliant, is really this clueless about his country’s recent press history. So let’s recall, for the ten millionth time, how that history actually went. It wasn’t “talk-radio jockeys” who got Clinton impeached or conducted that two-year War Against Gore; it was two “liberal” papers—the New York Times and the Washington Post—with mainstream press titans like Russert and Matthews reciting all the scripts and formulas. It was the New York Times, not the Wall Street Journal, which produced Jeff Gerth’s still-unexplained Whitewater stories—articles Gene Lyons debunked in Fools for Scandal (1995) while the Kinsleys stared into air. Meanwhile, every part of the War Against Gore came from within the mainstream press corps. In our view, the coverage of Campaign 2000 was the most remarkable press event of our time—but it was the Post and the Times, and people like Matthews, who drove that long war, not the Journal. (And no, it wasn’t “talk-radio jockeys.” They followed, while the mainstream clearly led.) But so what? Right to this day, millionaire “liberals” like Michael Kinsley keep reciting a safer, fake tale. They keep insisting that George Will and the Journal have driven the slanders against modern Dems—and they keep omitting the larger role played by their own friends and news orgs. (Kinsley writes for the Post and for Slate, which is owned by the Post.) It was the Wall Street Journal which did it! This tired old story is utterly bogus—but it likely plays well at island soirees, where the Kinsleys cavort with the Nantucket nabobs who have actually changed all our lives.

Read all through the Kinsley piece. It omits the seminal event of the age—the unexplained decision by our mainstream news orgs to invent and recite those anti-Dem scripts. Yes, Kinsley treats liberal readers like rubes in this “formulaic” column. But so what! Three big liberal bloggers rushed to salute him, one of them even praising his “genius!” In this way, we keep ourselves laughably ignorant of our own recent history. We make ourselves laughable marks.

How utterly silly is Kinsley’s formula? According to Kinsley, conservative journalists, scripted by “the Republicans,” push the complaints which bring down Big Dems. But let’s examine what actually happened in the one incident Kinsley cites. Let’s examine what happened last month after Hillary Clinton’s “plantation” remark.

Quite correctly, Kinsley slams the “synthetic indignation” which followed Clinton’s comment. But were people like George Will mainly at fault? Will is the one person Kinsley actually names in his column. But here’s what Will said, on This Week, when asked about Clinton’s remark:

WILL (1/22/06): I'm not even outraged over Hillary Clinton. I mean, I don't understand what the problem is. She—look, she was over the top. Being a Congressman—what are they paid, $160,000 a year? Not quite as bad as indentured labor. But look, this is moral exhibitionism on the part of everyone—synthetic indignation that we generate in this country over verbal slips. It doesn't matter a patch.
This was “synthetic indignation,” Will said—precisely the judgment which Kinsley expressed! Meanwhile, who was disturbed by Clinton’s vile remark? Here’s Russert’s outing on Meet the Press—Russert, who slipped Kinsley’s mind:
RUSSERT (1/22/06): Hillary Clinton jumped into this whole discussion about management of the House of Representatives. This is what she had to say:

CLINTON (videotape): When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about.

CARVILLE: When that happened, Paul called me, and, you know, of course I was going to defend her, she's like one of my favorite people in the world. But we both said, “You know, the thing that really bothers us is that when politicians say something to a different—one thing to a white audience and a different thing to a black audience.” And then some of Hillary's people called and said, “Well, we have this Gingrich quote that he said the same thing.” And OK, that's helpful, but we really hold Hillary to a higher standard than Speaker Gingrich. Then, as the day progressed, we found out that she said exactly the same thing on CNN to a white host and a white audience. At that point, I felt completely relieved and enthusiastic in sort of defending this, is that—and I think it's so true, it comes out as something big, and then we find out that it's something that she's been really consistent on. Whether or not it's the best—a lot of people may not know the plantation metaphor, what she was doing—the other thing is the clip, right after she said that, explained that she meant, that dissent was not allowed, and it was not a racial overtone. The next sentence qualified exactly what she was talking about.

RUSSERT: But as Senator Obama said, that—he doesn't use references to Nazi Germany, like “Gestapo” or “Nazi,” because it is a singular and unique and terrible event in our history. So, too, with slavery. Is it appropriate to use slavery metaphors, “plantation,” to talk about the House of Representatives?

CARVILLE: You know, again, I think that if you said a totalitarian system in the House, no dissent. The point she was trying to make and that she had made both to a predominantly white audience and to the black audience was that she was searching for something that showed that dissent was not allowed. And she qualified it. Again, if that is the best metaphor, I don't know. But I'm certainly not troubled by it because it was the thing that she used in both instances. And I think a plantation, by the way, was a place where dissent was not allowed.

RUSSERT: Mary Matalin?

MATALIN: Well, if anyone thinks there's no dissent in the Republican party is not watching the leadership race right now. We are not afraid of dissent. We are not afraid of debate. And this was much to do about nothing, an inconsequential bit of pedestrian pandering. What is the problem for Mrs. Clinton, she is held to a higher standard. This really illuminated some difficulties or vulnerabilities in her race. She's got front-runner status. She's a brilliant and hard-working Senator, to hear them say it. They have raised the bar for her. She's going to have to get over 70 percent to re-elect. She can't do this pedestrian kind of business of pandering.

RUSSERT: I think you just raised the bar.


MATALIN: Why? She's got—I know she's going to have to exceed 70 percent.

BEGALA: Ninety, 90!

MATALIN: She won't. She's got no opposition. She's in a Democratic state and she's brilliant. She has all the money and she's a superstar.

RUSSERT: Laura Bush, Paul Begala, said Mrs. Clinton's comments were “ridiculous.”

BEGALA: I think as my old pal Lynn, one of our mentors Lynn Miller used to say, "A hit dog barks." There's a reason that they're going out and trying to attack Hillary this way. Because they fear her. OK? If it was just some clown like me, you know, they'd probably just let it go. She's someone that they fear. They're terrified of the notion of a President Clinton Two. And I think maybe Democrats should take a lesson from that.

MATALIN: We sure are.

Exhausted, Russert finally raised a new subject. For the record, Obama had said nothing at allhe hadn’t been askedabout the “plantation” remark.

George Will called the flap “synthetic.” But on Meet the Press, Russert pushed it—and on Hardball, Matthews pimped it laughably hard, for three nights. So who gets fingered in Kinsley’s column? Of course! But so it goes as our elite faux-liberal class keep playing us proles for pure fools.

What’s the formula Kinsley followed? Name all the usual conservative suspects—and ignore all the big mainstream players who have actually changed our political landscape. In fact, it was Kinsley’s friends—and Kinsley’s owners—who conducted those wars against Clinton and Gore. But the Kinsleys—and the Chaits—will never say it. Can’t you hear their hidden message? We think we can hear it: Hey, rubes!

TOMORROW: Synthetic indignation, thy name is Kinsley! (We check out the quote Michael cites.)

Special report—Threatening Carroll!

PART 2—AFTER THE THREATS AND DEMANDS: “It has been eight years since Maryland told the Prince George's County school to shape up, or else.” That was the start to Nick Anderson’s report in the Sunday Post; he was discussing Charles Carroll Middle, a school in Maryland’s Prince George’s County which has been on that state’s “needs improvement” list pretty much for the past eight years. The state has kept telling the school to shape up—and the school has continued recording low test scores. Because Anderson describes the situation so well, we’ll let him do it again:

ANDERSON (2/12/06): It has been eight years since Maryland told the Prince George's County school to shape up, or else. It has been four years since the federal government raised the pressure with a law meant to force shake-ups through aid and sanctions.

Yet Charles Carroll Middle School has continued to fall short of state standards, even though the county has switched textbooks, changed principals three times and even assigned a "turnaround specialist."

So far, actions and threats have been fruitless. The school, for a second straight year, is at the final stage of a state "needs improvement" list.

The state has posed “threats” to Carroll for eight years—but so far, the school hasn’t managed good test scores. Result? “Maryland faces a question posed by the No Child Left Behind law,” Anderson writes. “What happens when a school reaches the end of the line?”

So how about it? In this age of “higher standards” and “threats,” what do states do when schools like Carroll fail to improve their test scores? Before we answer that basic question, let’s review some language in Anderson’s piece—the familiar language of threat and demand. This helps us focus on something quite crucial—the unfortunate but real limitations of a program like No Child Left Behind.

To our ear, Anderson’s opening statement was quite suggestive; for the past eight years, the state of Maryland has been telling Carroll that it had to shape up—or else. We thought that language was intriguing—the kind of language we cited last week when Jay Mathews described No Child Left Behind. The federal program “demands that schools improve their performance every year,” Mathews wrote in the Post. We noted the fact that, for various reasons, this “demand” doesn’t really make sense; for various reasons, it’s simply absurd to “demand” that a school improve its test scores each year. But there was Anderson, using similar language—the familiar language of threat and demand. According to Anderson, the state of Maryland had told Charles Carroll that it had to “shape up or else.” But eight years of these “threats” haven’t worked. So now the state will have to decide what it meant what it meant by those key words: Or else.

Under No Child Left Behind, what happens when “demands” and “threats” don’t work? When a struggling school doesn’t “shape up,” despite being told that it has to—or else? In fact, the state of Maryland—like other states—has no magic potion to offer. Maryland’s long-serving superintendent, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, is a perfectly capable leader. (We’ve appeared with Grasmick at several state functions, and she’s always been quite chipper.) But what kind of options does Grasmick have now? What lies behind that “or else?” At one point, Anderson lists Grasmick’s options. None of them seems all that grand:

ANDERSON: [No Child Left Behind] requires reading and math tests for all students in grades three through eight and once in high school. States must track progress toward closing achievement gaps...

Schools must be tagged for improvement if they miss academic targets two years in a row. High-poverty schools that receive federal Title I funds are pushed down a five-year pathway of consequences for repeated failure. (Maryland also imposes some sanctions on schools that don't qualify for the funds; Charles Carroll Middle is one.) In the fifth year, these schools must be "restructured." That means they can be converted to public charter schools, run by a private contractor or run by the state. Or their staff can be jettisoned. Or they can undergo "any other major restructuring of the school's governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms.”

What can happen to flailing schools after five years? In the highlighted passage, you see the options—and none of them necessarily means that the school will perform any better. Would a “private contractor” do better at Carroll? There is no guarantee that it would. Meanwhile, in that final sentence, we see the empty language of threat and demand; the failing school can be forced to undergo "any other major restructuring of [its] governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms.” A sentence like that is pure gobbledegook. Nancy Grasmick doesn’t have magic options.

Grasmick, like other state superintendents, would love to see her state’s schools do better. But no, her options aren’t all that brilliant; there’s no one waiting in the wings with a record of proven success. For that reason, many states do the natural thing after five years of threats and demand. After five years of threats, the states punt. Anderson says it a bit more diplomatically:

ANDERSON (continuing directly): The Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, is studying a handful of states with schools at the last stage. California, for example, has 249. The analysts found that local officials generally shy away from the strongest sanctions, charter conversions or takeovers. Frequently, they replace staff. Many choose the most open-ended option: "other."
"All the Draconian measures don't make sense to educators when they have to deal with these problems," said Jack Jennings, president of the policy center and a former Democratic congressional aide. "They opt for what they think will work rather than something showy.”
After those five years of threats and demands, local officials “shy away from the strongest sanctions.” And when they do, they get the soft-soap from watchdogs like Jennings, who makes the silliest statement in Anderson’s report. According to Jennings, the various states “opt for what they think will work rather than something showy.” But in fact, none of these options actually “work,” as Jennings surely knows. That’s because our education elites don’t really know what to do to help schools like Carroll. This basic point is often obscured in all the bluster about “threats” and “demands.” So let’s restate this important point: Our education elites don’t really know what struggling schools like Carroll should do. We’ll examine that basic point a bit more on the morrow.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Few ideas.

MARCUS DRAWS LESSONS: Ruth Marcus is smart, and she’s decent and concerned. So when she watched The Boys of Baraka, what conclusions did she draw? Her column was called, “School Lessons from Kenya.” Here were her thoughts about policy:

MARCUS (2/14/06): In the end, "Boys of Baraka" stands as a rebuke to the comfortable orthodoxies of the left and right. The right wants results but is stingy about committing the money necessary to achieve them. Yes, grants to low-income schools and other funding to support No Child Left Behind grew during the first two years of the Bush presidency. But money has been flat-lined since (funding actually fell from 2005 to 2006) and the latest budget envisions less overall federal spending on elementary and secondary education in 2011 than in 2003.

Yet for all the legitimate complaints from many on the left about the straitjacketed rules and underfunded mandates of No Child Left Behind, for all the heartfelt concern about the threats posed by charter schools and voucher programs, it's impossible to watch this film and think anything other than: whatever it takes to give these children and others like them a chance.

The left's reflexive antipathy toward anything associated with the Bush administration has obscured the importance of holding schools accountable for the children they are failing. At Baraka, teachers discover that Richard is performing at a second-grade level. "He's never been evaluated as far as we know in the States, which is mind-boggling—that some teacher wouldn't notice at some point in time that this kid is not learning anything," says teacher Monica Lemoine.

"When you're sending them to Baltimore city schools, you're sending them to jail," says one Baraka parent. School vouchers make me queasy, but "Boys of Baraka" forces the question: Who am I to tell parents in this terrible circumstance that the public schools are their only option?

The right won’t spend enough money, she says. The left opposes accountability and vouchers. This is a stock formulation—Both sides are wrong!—and it presents two stock ideas. But uh-oh! What should the right spend that money on? And is there evidence that vouchers actually work? For ourselves, we’d support vouchers and more spending (in well-planned situations). But Marcus has very little to say beyond a few standard points.

And this isn’t Marcus’ fault. We have an impoverished education debate; well-intentioned generalists like Marcus rarely hear any challenging notions. How weak does our public debate tend to be? On the front page of her own paper, Marcus just saw a heart-warming story about a “school that works”—and the story turned out to be massively bogus. And yesterday, Eduwonk heaped praise on the writer who got taken in. Eduwonk is all for standards—for teachers, not for men of his class!

Liberals quit on urban schools long ago. Conservatives push a few shaky “solutions.” And ed writers keep posting feel-good stories built on predictable types of deception. Was it really Marcus’ fault that so few ideas came to mind?