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All politics is complex


Inside the policy labyrinth

R. Shep Melnick (center) and class in Cushing 208. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

R. Shep Melnick (center) and class in Cushing 208. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert


Class: PO 301: "Policy and Politics in the United States"

Instructors: R. Shep Melnick, Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., Professor of American Politics

Readings: Bureaucracy, by James Q. Wilson; Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform, by Diana Ravitch; Making Environmental Policy, by Daniel Fiorino; Countdown to Reform: The Great Social Security Debate, by Henry Aaron and Robert Reischauer; Ending Welfare As We Know It, by Kent Weaver; plus writings by 35 others, including Melnick himself, Chester Finn, Hugh Heclo, Jeffrey Sachs, Charles Murray, Lawrence Summers, and Stephen Breyer

Wrapping up a lecture, Professor R. Shep Melnick gives last-minute pointers on drafting a memo for "your boss." The student drafters are to assume they are legislative aides, instructed by either a liberal Democrat (Representative George Miller of California), a conservative Republican (Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire), or a centrist "New Democrat" (Connecticut's Senator Joe Lieberman) to mark out the political and policy choices that will confront him when the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 comes up for reauthorization in 2007. And their boss, a very busy man, will read no more than five double-spaced pages.

This is not the way Melnick learned political science or even the way he taught the subject for most of his career. He recalls that when he arrived at Boston College in 1997, he was looking for fresh ways to teach about Congress, the presidency, and the courts—ways that also include the powers exerted by bureaucracies, political parties, and interest groups. His solution was to immerse his students in the frays. After tackling education reform, his class takes on school vouchers (cranking out memos for three congresswomen), then Social Security reform, followed by welfare reform.

"It's exciting to get some real-life knowledge, and I've already used it," says Vanessa Careiro '08, a political science major from Port St. Lucie, Florida. A few days after the No Child Left Behind assignment, the sophomore began work as an intern in U.S. Senator John Kerry's Boston office. Her first task was to write letters of congratulation to Massachusetts school principals who achieved benchmark goals written into No Child Left Behind. She was able to do that, she reports, and to hold forth among Kerry staffers on the subject of reauthorization.

Melnick is an object in motion when teaching, and he pushes the subject matter with the urgency of a majority whip moving a key piece of legislation through the House. He is also the image of a senator in the 23rd hour of a filibuster, rumpled and sweaty, sleeves rolled up and shirt poking out of his trousers in the back.

During a September class, Melnick offers an omnibus view of the people, politics, and ideas his 33 students will get to know better in the coming weeks. They have been assigned to read four chapters of James Q. Wilson's book, Bureaucracy (along with readings on school reform and interest groups), and the professor is introducing Wilson's concept of "entrepreneurial politics," among other typologies. Basically, a policy entrepreneur is someone who sells an idea of reform to large swaths of the electorate with the help of mass media, ideological groups, and like-minded politicians. Classic examples include the auto-safety and environmental movements on the left, and the antitax movement on the right.

"Have all of you heard of Ralph Nader?" asks Melnick, pacing the rows of desks in the crammed Cushing Hall classroom. They have, but only as the spoiler in Al Gore's 2000 presidential run. Yes, the professor says, but before that Nader was an unrivaled consumer advocate who mobilized the public behind auto-safety reforms, his rallying call captured in the title of his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.

If successful, Melnick points out, entrepreneurial politics leads to social policy. And that brings about a new phase of legislation, regulation, and the search for ways of measuring whether the policies have really solved anything.

Here, Melnick ferries the class through thickets of policy mandates and bureaucratic challenges, highlighting the areas of education, crime, the military, and national parks. The federal government institutes standardized testing as a way of measuring school performance, he says, yet the leading predictor of test scores is the socioeconomic status of its students (or, when that is held constant, how strongly a school is "teaching to the test"). Melnick leaves students with the question, "How easy is it to measure the outcomes you really want?"

On another occasion, Melnick lets his graduate teaching assistant, Chris Baylor, do the footwork. Baylor assumes the role of a free-market enthusiast who espouses privatization of government functions such as education. He stumps for the idea that school vouchers would spawn different types of private schools that could better serve the diversity of learning styles. Anyone ever attend a school "that was different?" Baylor asks.

A young man with hair in dreadlocks speaks up. Seye Akinbulumo, a junior majoring in political science, says his high school in Brockton, Massachusetts, was created to serve the Cape Verdean community. "We had a really interesting bilingual program. Teachers used music in presenting the curriculum. We wrote songs and linked popular artists to subjects we were learning," says Akinbulumo (adding, there are "pros and cons" to such classroom experimentation).

But before his teaching assistant can claim Akinbulumo as a poster child for privatization, Melnick interjects to ask if the Brockton school was public or private. It was public. Notch one up for the opposing view that government schools can be just as "different" as private schools.

The exchange may illustrate how fluid a course in political institutions can be when the subject is lashed to current policy issues and an authentic array of players and positions. That's what Melnick has elected to do, although he has a slightly hidden agenda: to help cure undergraduates of political jadedness by impressing upon them the worthy challenges of policy making.

"I'd like them to get a little more respect for the people who are engaged in this process, who are wrestling with very difficult problems," Melnick explains in his office, decorated with photos of the late Tip O'Neill. He adds, "The problem of cynicism is quite significant."

William Bole

William Bole is a freelance journalist who lives in Andover, Massachusetts.


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