It seems counterproductivenot to mention annoyingto ask people what they need, and then ignore what they tell you. More of that seems to be going on in Washington these days.
The vapor is still curling over the heads of all those who were steamed about the decision relaxing ownership rules for the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the “fair and balanced” media mogul. Under a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision, a handful of media companies would be free to acquire a sizable chunk of the nation’s general news outlets. (Why eSchool News could even buy up T.H.E. and CMP!)
The FCC didn’t embrace its controversial ownership decision without public consultation, of course. By no means. The commission made sure it solicited public comment.
As it turned out, thousands of citizens responded to that call. The overwhelming majority said, “No, don’t relax those media-ownership rules.” The commission duly reflected on this outpouring of public sentiment, and then promptly voted to push the mute button on vox populi. At press time, a dedicated cadre in Congress was hard at work trying to undo that unpopular FCC decision. Stay tuned (at least for now, you still should be able to pick up the news).
This deaf-ear strategy played so well for FCC Commissioner Michael Powell that Secretary Rod Paige apparently thinks he might like to try it out over at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). This time the question is how to reform the nation’s venerable Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC). Once again came the call for public comment.
Educators, librarians, and other interested parties took the time to communicate strong objections to the proposed consolidation of ERIC. (Read all about it on the Front Page of this issue.) More than 3,000 comments, in fact, flooded in to ED during a single month, the vast majority sounding a unified theme: “The plan to eliminate ERIC’s 16 separate, subject-specific clearinghouses is something we don’t need.”
Make no mistake. ERIC certainly could stand some improvement. ED’s “What Works Clearinghouse”named after the signature initiative of Paige’s predecessor, the high-rolling Bill Bennettundoubtedly would be useful. But streamlining the system and updating the technology needn’t include scrapping what actually does work. And the fact that educators perform more than 600,000 ERIC searches in an average month is proof that ERIC serves a valuable function.
As every school-reform advocate well knows, people hate changesometimes even when it’s for the better. But insist on change for the worse, and people are likely to hate it and resent you. Obviously, ED could reform ERIC without discarding a valuable component of the program.
At press time, in spite of the expressed wishes of the very educators who use ERIC most, it seemed likely Secretary Paige would proceed apace with this unpopular consolidation of resources. Such a move probably will be irredeemable, too. No one in Congress is likely to feel strongly enough about ERIC to mount a legislative veto effort like the one now targeting the FCC’s bow to big media.
The dedicated ERIC researchers and subject-area specialists currently operating in colleges and universities around the nation almost certainly will disband and move on. At that point, undoing education research services developed over 40 years will be a fait accompli. In effect, the homogenized efficiency of a Walmart will replace the shopkeeper’s intimate knowledge of a specific community. How’s that for reform?
People, according to the opinion polls, don’t like leaders who decide where to stand based on the results of public opinion polls. But what seems to have eluded some of our leaders is this: If you’re going to solicit public comment, you’re supposed to listen to what the public has to say.
To paraphrase that great first Republican, Abraham Lincoln, You can ignore some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but if you ignore most of the people most of the time, you’re likely to go down in the polls.
When it comes to appreciating the folly of serving up things people say they don’t need, business seems to be quicker than bureaucrats at getting the point. After all, when’s the last time you saw a New Coke commercial?