Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Politics over Progress. Again.

The House of Representatives recently passed a measure that would remove a ban on providing contraceptives to overseas groups that offer abortions.

Many Republican representatives voted against the measure stating that “anything that helps abortion providers should be banned.”

Although it is questionable whether this bill will pass the Senate, if it does, the President has already signaled that he would veto it.

I do not wish to claim a side in the “Pro-Choice”, “Pro-Life” debate in this post, nor do I have to in order to stake a firm position on this particular issue.

This bill should be passed unanimously and the President should be proud to sign it.

The bottom line is that this bill will reduce the number of abortions performed.

Actually, let me add a little more to that bottom line.

This bill will also (assuming that some of the contraceptives are condoms and not just birth control pills) combat the spread of AIDS and other STDs – a great moral, healthcare and financial victory for the donation recipients and the U.S. taxpayers (who are spending tens of billions to treat AIDS in Africa alone). Furthermore, easier access to contraceptives could have positive empowering effects for women in developing countries and less liberal societies.

The argument that donating contraceptives to abortion providers enables the expansion of the service seems nothing short of nonsensical to me. Just how are items that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies supposed to increase the number of abortions?

I can only see one remotely intelligent argument that tries to answer that question.

"If we provide either cash or in-kind contributions or anything of value to
pro-abortion organizations in other countries, we empower, enrich and enable
them to expand abortion,"

So said Representative Christopher Smith (R –NJ).

In a strictly financial sense, this is true. Money not spent on contraceptives could be used to market abortion services. In theory, it could even be used to hire more doctors to perform the procedures.

We could debate if or how often this would ever happen. We never see commercials or mass promotion of abortion in this country (promoting the preservation of the right is not the same as promoting its arbitrary practice), but it may very well occur elsewhere.

In any case, I believe that a better debate tactic is to grant the opposition’s point as true and then proceed to demonstrate why it is irrelevant to the greater issue.

If we do that here, it becomes clear that this is still a worthy tradeoff if the goal is to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and thereby lower the number of abortions. If a condom costs the U.S. government $0.25 (and this is probably an overestimate given volume discounts) then you would have to believe that a single new $100,000 doctor (hired with the “freed” funds) can perform more abortions than four hundred thousand condoms would prevent.

This is pretty simple math, even for a member of the United States House of Representatives.

Unfortunately, political equations are often even simpler.

A politician’s stance on abortion – particularly a Republican’s – is too often a black and white issue. You must be against Roe vs. Wade and for a law banning abortions. If you support a measure to reduce the number of abortions that even appears to be conciliatory to a Pro-Choice constituency, you expose your right flank in your ever-upcoming election.

Overturning Roe vs. Wade could only result from a Constitutional Amendment (requiring approval from most of the state legislatures, not just the federal Congress) or a new Supreme Court.

This being the case, it is fair to say that individual lawmakers are almost irrelevant to the question of outlawing abortion. Yet a few more politically courageous ones could easily reduce the number of them performed.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Improvement, Yes. But Not Good Enough

Education is my single greatest public policy passion. Unfortunately, the consuming nature of our national security (including immigration) and foreign affairs challenges have the media and the vast majority of our politicians discussing other things. As a consequence, I have as well.

But a few articles appeared the Washington Post in the last month that have given me material to present here and I am excited to talk about it.

Education reform is one of the most exciting areas in American public policy due to the stark nature of our system's challenges and the extraordinary upside to our society if we can manage to improve the situation.

One of the few pieces of meaningful domestic progress (in any area) the Bush Administration has made, in my opinion, was the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Honest critics have charged that this legislation is less than perfect and/or under-funded, but I think few can honestly argue that it was not a positive step forward.

In any case, it was a truly bipartisan effort with significant authors at both the White House and Senator Edward Kennedy's office among others.

The NCLB Act does the following, in the words of Senator Kennedy:

Before the act was passed, most states lacked ways to track student
progress and teacher effectiveness....Only four states had approved assessments
that tracked and reported the achievement of every group of students in their

Today, all 50 states have standards, assessments and accountability
procedures that enable us to track the achievement of every group of students.
Every school measures performance, based not on overall student population but
on progress in closing achievement gaps and getting all students to meet high
standards. Schools across the country are using assessments under the No Child
law to identify weaknesses in instruction and areas of need for their

This represents a tremendous step in the right direction for our nation, but additional immediate steps are needed. There are many that I could list and discuss here, but I will focus on a single one now that is directly related to NCLB.

Apparently, the NCLB law allows individual states to set their own student proficiency standards that are often substantially lower than the recommended national standard. Not surprisingly, this has contributed to substantially different rates of student progress across states with differing standards.

A recent Washington Post Editorial advocated a single enforceable national standard in response to this reality. I emphatically agree with this recommendation.

On the same day, the Post printed a rebuttal of their own editorial written by the current Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. Spellings presented two arguments against a unified national standard that I would like to respond to here.

Her first argument:

First, [a single national standard] goes against more than two centuries of American educational tradition. Under the Constitution, states and localities have the primary
leadership role in public education. They design the curriculum and pay 90
percent of the bills. Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not
dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away.

If there is one area (and there are many) where "tradition" should never be invoked as a rationale for the status quo, it is in Education. I deeply respect the Constitution, but its comments on individual state's responsibilities and prerogatives for local education reflect a world in which globalization was a meaningless term and each state did in fact operate meaningfully as the dominant economic entity (from the perspective of its citizens).

I agree that neighborhood schools deserve strong local leadership, but their students also deserve the full benefit of the resources of the most powerful government in the world. The federal Department of Education, the collection of "bureaucrats" that Secretary Spellings references in her article (and apparently leads today with little confidence), has access to a wealth of talent that most states and local districts cannot hope to attract. Their expertise should benefit all students. A student (and teacher) in Mississippi or Arkansas public schools should be held to the same minimal standard as a student in Massachusetts or Maine because they are going to compete in the same global economy.

Spellings worries that national standards and a national exam would be "unprecedented and unwise". The NCLB legislation was unprecedented, yet it was backed by President Bush and has driven positive outcomes.

Unwise? The Secretary does not clearly say why this would be the case, though she does advance the idea that national standards would promote "lowest common denominator politics".

This is absurd.

States would be free to set higher standards than the national minimum, just as they do with the minimum wage. However, states with leaders or teachers unions that reject a minimum standard sufficient for a global economy would be held accountable and their students would not have to pay the price of an insufficient education.

Spellings concludes with the following remark: "Rather than top-down mandates, we are encouraging a race to the top."

With all due respect and credit for the genuine progress achieved so far, it is hard to see how you can inspire a true race to the top without drawing a finish line.