Academic journal article Education Next

Donkey in Disguise: Jack Jennings and the Center on Education Policy

Academic journal article Education Next

Donkey in Disguise: Jack Jennings and the Center on Education Policy

Article excerpt

Checked (all titles published by the Center on Education Policy):

From the Capital to the Classroom, Year 1 (January 2003), Year 2 (January 2004), Year 3 (March 2005)

State High School Exit Exams series: A Baseline Report (August 2002), Put to the Test (August 2003), A Maturing Reform (August 2004)

States Try Harder, but Gaps Persist: State High School Exit Exams 2005 (August 2005)

Pay Now or Pay Later: The Hidden Costs of High School Exit Exams (May 2004)

School Vouchers: What We Know and Don't Know ... and How We Could Learn More (June 2000)

Do We Still Need Public Schools? (1996)

With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the proliferation of high school exit exams, the success of school choice initiatives, and a dozen other smaller if more bitter battles, education has become one of the hottest policy topics in Washington. That means there's a booming market for education experts, especially those who claim to speak with the disinterested voice of reason among the gaggle of partisan squawkers and interest groups. Jack Jennings, a one-time king of Capitol Hill education policy and now head of the Center on Education Policy (CEP), is one such expert.


Jennings and the CEP (he founded the organization in 1995) provide research and expert opinion on a variety of education issues. Jennings is one of the mainstream press's favorite goto guys on education. He and the CEP appear frequently in the New York Times and the Washington Post commenting on education issues and are variously described as "nonpartisan" (Times, January 27, 2004; March 14, 2004; Post, March 16, 2004), "nonprofit" (Times, August 18, 2004; February 7, 2006), "a research group" (Times, April 4, 2005; May 11,2005), and "independent" (Post, February 19, 2004; August 29, 2004; March 24, 2005). The Post's David Broder called the CEP "an independent advocate for more effective public schools" (March 13, 2004). And on March 26 of this year, the Times turned over its most valuable piece of real estate--two columns on the top of the Sunday front page--to Jennings and CEP to announce, two days before it was even released, a CEP study on NCLB's impact on curriculum, again calling the organization "nonpartisan."

The media seem to see Jennings and the CEP as the voices of education research and reason, an enviable position at a time when nonpartisans are hard to come by. Jennings uses this highly desirable media perch to promote findings that he says are the result of empirical research conducted by the CEP. He says, for instance, that NCLB is too strict and is underfunded, that its more controversial requirements are unworkable and should be scrapped, that only big new state spending can help kids pass exit exams, and that school choice is unproved and dangerous. Is this non-partisanship or something else?

Accidental Social Science

Jack Jennings wasn't always a professional "independent," "nonpartisan" researcher. In fact, for the better part of three decades (from 1967 to 1994) he was one of the most powerful education policymakers on Capitol Hill, as a Democratic staffer for the House Education and Labor Committee at a time when the Democrats completely controlled the House. His influence over federal education policy was enormous: he worked on every major education bill that went through Congress in those years. It is not surprising that education journalists would still turn to a prominent policymaker like Jennings for quotations. But how does a lifelong partisan congressional staffer change his spots and become a disinterested professional researcher who follows the evidence wherever it leads?

The answer, in this case, is that he doesn't.

One of the CEP's most important publications, for instance, is an annual study of the effects of NCLB and its associated rules and regulations, "From the Capital to the Classroom. …

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