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Obama Can Reshape the School Debate

An educational opportunity.

12:00 AM, Mar 25, 2010 • By GARY ANDRES
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President Obama missed a host of opportunities to remedy Washington’s fever of polarization during the health care debate. Instead of forging a bipartisan coalition and ratcheting back the campaign-style rhetoric, he agreed to a one-party strategy and consistently demonized his opponents with over the top rhetoric.

Obama Can Reshape the School Debate

Mr. Obama also falsely raised citizens’ expectations that one bill or a new government program could remedy all that ails us. Government is no wonder drug.  It cannot deliver all the life altering promises on the president’s wish list.

But American politics can also produce second chances. The president may have an opportunity to generate a more realistic kind of change when it comes to education reform. Yet it’s unclear if he has the conviction or the political fortitude to do so.

As Congress poises to reauthorize the "No Child Left Behind" law later this year, the president could contribute to the school debate by pursuing a three-prong strategy, guiding federal policy toward elementary and secondary schools.

First, like health care, education reform is too important to pursue in a purely partisan manner. Policies toward American schools deserve the stamp of approval of both parties.  Of course, total consensus is never possible.  Politics in America includes stark differences, and at times even sharp elbows. Now more than ever, Obama needs to redouble his efforts to bring both sides to the table.  The president can and must insist that this reauthorization bill move forward with at least some authentic Republican support.   

Obama might want to try some private negotiations with Republicans and Democrats early, rather than public shows like the Blair House summit on health care late in the process.

Second, the White House must put the teacher’s unions in their proper position in this debate.  For political reasons, this won’t be easy.

Obama regularly calls out “special interest” groups with alacrity.  The scolder-in-chief roughs up big banks, greedy insurers, and major oil companies on a daily basis.

Teachers unions are every bit a “special interest” as bankers, insurers, or oilmen.  They protect teacher jobs and lobby to increase their pay. That’s their role. The president should not give them some extraordinary seat at the table determining the future of American education.

Obama will need to buck the unions to accomplish two of the most important elements of reform: increasing the number of charter schools and enacting teacher performance pay provisions.   His rhetoric is right on both matters. But there are some troubling signs of union fingerprints on both matters, according to knowledgeable senior congressional staff. Moreover, unions also hold a lot of sway with the Democrats in Congress and could undercut even the president’s best intentions.

The president has the opportunity to treat the teachers’ unions like any other special interest.  And he should. But given their role in bankrolling Democratic candidates, risks abound.

Third, change the expectations game.  Education in America won’t get fixed with one bill or a new government program. 

Politicians make promises. And Obama excels at doing just that. In describing the administration’s new Race to the Top (RTT) initiative, he uses appealing words such as “instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform.”             

Sounds great. Yet as Frederick M. Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute discovered, the status quo still carries a big stick.  Writing recently in the National Review Online, Hess analyzed which states received the largest share of RTT grants and found little correlation between funding levels and reform proposals in states’ funding applications. The old formula systems – not reform ideas – predict who gets the money.

Changing the expectations game also means an honest discussion of the role of the federal government. The president’s instinct on a lot of matters is to centralize power in Washington.  He needs to break this habit when it comes to education. 

Improving education in America requires constant vigilance and hard work, not just another federal program and promising speeches. Indeed, social context may matter most in determining educational achievement and need. Poverty, parental involvement, financial resources, and discipline all play critical roles.

Despite these challenges, the president has a chance to hit the reset button when it comes to education reform. He can insist on at least some bipartisanship, place the unions in their proper role, and ratchet back his rhetoric about the power of Washington in fixing all that ails our schools.

Doing so would represent the kind of transformative change many Americans sought when they voted for Obama;  yet also a departure from his behavior thus far in his first term as president.

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