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Education Reforms Will Miss the ‘Top’ Without Broader Consensus

Reflecting on Last Week's Confrontation Between the Obama Administration and Congress

SOURCE: AP/Nati Harnick

In order to better help our students, like those in the Nebraska middle school pictured here, progressives need to build a solid coalition in support of both financing and reform of our schools.

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I am sure that Jonathan Alter’s recent column in Newsweek, “How Congress Keeps Screwing Up Education—President Obama’s school-reform programs are falling victim to the teachers’ unions,” is as funny to the lobbyists of teacher unions as it is to me. The column is in fact not about Congress, but rather about Rep. David Obey (D-WI), who Alter claims “is in danger of (leaving office) as a water carrier for the teachers’ unions—the man who gutted President Barack Obama’s signature program on education, Race to the Top.”

As someone who worked for Rep. Obey on education issues for many of his 41 years in Congress and was present on more than one occasion when education union lobbyists were unceremoniously thrown out of his office, I can guarantee you that whatever differences he may have with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, they are not about “carrying water” for teacher unions.” Anyone who has followed the politics of federal education funding over the last two decades must worry that Alter must be woefully short of arguments to even consider such an allegation.

Alter’s argument that Rep. Obey is “gutting” President Obama’s “signature” education program is equally dubious. Race to the Top was given $4.3 billion in funds in the 2009 stimulus package, of which $3.6 billion is still available. In addition $1.3 billion is requested for the coming year. Rep. Obey’s so-called gutting would leave 90 percent of the funds available for the program over the next year in place.

Further, this modest reduction in a new and untested program would leverage $10 billion for U.S. school districts to weather the draconian teacher layoffs, class consolidations and decline in teaching quality that will occur in their absence. My colleagues at the Center for American Progress who work on education policy strongly disagree, but I think that was clearly a tradeoff worth making.

Cutting the funds for Race to the Top was not Rep. Obey’s first choice. It was demanded by conservative Democrats and a unified phalanx of Republicans—including the four Senators that Alter now thinks will have a change of heart, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Olympia Snow (R-ME)—all of whom are willing to borrow virtually any amount of money for foreign military adventures but insist that every dime we spend to protect teacher’s jobs be offset.

This political coalition in Congress is not going away, and any effort to reduce teacher layoffs this fall will involve painful cuts. Race to the Top will not be the only victim, nor in all probability will the proposed 10 percent reduction in its spending be the most damaging to the nation’s future.

What is disturbing to me is how those who are parading under the banner of school and teacher accountability are so unwilling to be subjected to accountability standards themselves. What reformers now argue is that the central problem facing learning today is the teaching force and the entrenched unions protecting that force. As popular as that criticism may be in many quarters, Congress has an obligation to find out what evidence backs up those claims. Are schools with weak unions or no unions producing better results? Do charter schools give more value to the taxpayer and the student than noncharter schools? Will Education Secretary Duncan’s plan result in schools attracting better teachers than the ones they succeed in firing?

The evidence available for those questions is not one sided. The person who many might describe as the “mother” of the current education accountability movement, Diane Ravitch, now believes that the preponderance of evidence argues against such reforms. Ravitch, now a professor of education history at New York University, fostered the move toward pupil testing as a means of establishing greater teacher accountability when she served as a senior Education Department appointee in the first Bush administration. She not only questions the effectiveness of many of the in vogue attempts at establishing teacher accountability and charter schools, but she also recently wrote a column in favor of the Obey amendment. In it she says:

Obey is trying to save the jobs of tens of thousands of public school teachers who have received pink slips. …there can be no school reform of any meaning if tens of thousands of teachers lose their jobs. Class sizes will soar, especially in hard-pressed urban districts, and education will suffer a serious setback for our nation’s most vulnerable children.

Ravitch further argues:

Research and national scores have repeatedly demonstrated that charter schools in aggregate do not perform better than regular public schools. Merit pay has been tried and has failed repeatedly since the 1920s. Why should these dubious ideas, with little or no evidence to support them, take precedence over the continued employment of teachers?

Whatever one might say about the merits of the cutting $500 million or 10 percent of the Race to the Top money in order to give local schools $10 billion to avoid layoffs, it is clear that Secretary Duncan has failed to develop a consensus within his party or within Congress around the proposal. Following the White House’s threat to veto legislation containing $37 billion it claims is urgently needed to fight the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in order to protect the half-billion dollars it claims is essential for Race to the Top, Secretary Duncan spent most of the day calling members of Congress urging them to vote against the Obey amendment. The net result was that 236 House Democrats voted for the amendment while 15 opposed.

Of the 15 voting “no” only a few were supporters of Race to the Top, the majority were Blue Dogs who opposed using the reduced funding for preventing teacher layoffs. Only one democrat of the 30 on the House Education and Labor Committee—the panel that will be responsible for the rewrite federal elementary and secondary education law later this year—voted as the secretary asked them to.

Progressives need to build a solid coalition in support of both financing and reform of our schools. We shouldn’t label people as someone’s “water carrier” if they ask tough questions about what the financing will accomplish or where the reforms will lead. We can’t afford a continuing string of dead ends in education policy. And we can not achieve unity unless we respect each others opinion and have the evidence to support our individual notions of what constitutes reform.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

See also:

Race to the Top Debate, by John D. Podesta

Don’t Put Education Reform at Risk, by Robin Chait and Cindy Brown

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