New Jersey was just denied its bid for some $400 million from the federal government’s “Race to the Top” initiative. The reason, apparently, is because of a “clerical error” in one paragraph on one page of the 1,000-page application. (Apparently the state was required to provide budget figures for one set of years, and it mistakenly provided figures for a slightly different set of years.)
In a state as far in debt as New Jersey is—its debt is currently estimated to be in excess of $50 billion, approximately 100% of its annual expenditure—the revenue lost because of this clerical error constitutes less than 1% of its debt. But it’s still a lot of money. There is now a lot of finger-pointing going on: The teachers’ union is blaming Governor Christie for his incompetence, Governor Christie is claiming the union signed off on the application too, etc.
Whether the federal government, which itself is in rather shaky financial shape, should be handing out billions of dollars it doesn’t have to states that have spent themselves over their skis is a question of course. But this episode encapsulates brilliantly one of the problems with centralized, that is to say bureaucratic, administration of large-scale enterprises like education.
Because the centralized authorities cannot possess the detailed local knowledge required to make appropriate judgments about the individual cases that fall within their purview, they must instead resort to the expedient of adopting and applying rules to wide swaths of cases. That is, instead of relying on principles, like “reward applicants with the most merit,” they rely instead on rules, like “reject application if box 17(a)(3)(i) on page 1,273 is not fully darkened (an ‘x’ is not acceptable).”* The former requires judgment, which is difficult; the latter requires robots, and is easy.
This explains some of the robotic intransigence for which bureaucrats are infamous. Rules, rules, and more rules, all of which must be followed—even when no one really knows why—and there can be no exceptions made, even when, if we used our independent judgment, everyone on all sides would agree that an exception is warranted. That is why we all still have to take off our shoes at airports, for example.
Of course, the bureaucrats making decisions in the Race to the Top initiative weren’t given enough money to approve every application, so they had to reject some. It’s much easier to reject applications for technical, if pedantic, reasons than to come up with substantive judgments about the relative merits of applications. As someone who has sat on many committees evaluating applicants for jobs and for scholarships, I can attest to the difficulty and time consumption of evaluating each application on its merits. Still, that is what an evaluator should do: resorting to other expedients is, though easier, a breach of the professional responsibility of an evaluator.
That is easy to say. As the number of applicants goes up, however, and as the length of applications increases (New Jersey’s application was allegedly 1,000 pages long), the desire to find expedients and short cuts becomes almost irresistible. Hence expedients are found, and applied—ruthlessly, without judgment.
I don’t think we should have our educational decisions made or funded by centralized authorities; I think that, on balance, the positives of localized control and funding outweigh the negatives, and the negatives associated with centralized control outweigh the positives. But as long as we have the federal government making decisions like this for us, we should not expect anything other than the unthinking application of arbitrary rules that this New Jersey episode has shown.
*I thank economist David Rose for helpful discussion of the distinction between “principles” and “rules.”