Getting ready for education reform: part 1

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush’s signature domestic initiative, was due for congressional reauthorization in 2008. Congress, of course, failed to reauthorize the law before the elections and NCLB’s automatic reauthorization clause kicked in. But the Obama administration looks set to take up NCLB and education policy more broadly some time in 2010 after congress finishes with health care reform. The education bill is likely to be one of only a few big bills moving through congress next year (along with cap-and-trade). It is also likely to be relatively bipartisan, given the convergence in both parties’ thinking on education policy in the last 2 decades.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot of hard choices to make.  It’s time to get ready for that debate. Today I’m beginning what will be a series of posts over the coming year looking at what’s on the table in the Education Bill (I won’t call it NCLB because it’ll certainly undergo a name change). The purpose is as much to educate me as any of my readers. Today’s topic: why we expect a bold education innitiative and not just window dressing.

Arne Duncan, bipartisanship, and the “Race to the Top”

When Obama nominated the chief executive of Chicago’s public schools, Arne Duncan, to be Secretary of Education, the announcement was met with near universal praise. Lamar Alexander, a previous SoE under Bush and now a Republican Senator, said that Duncan was Obama’s best cabinet pick. Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson told Duncan, “you’re going to be a great Secretary of Education.” North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr called Duncan one of the two smartest cabinet nominees, putting him and Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate Dr. Steven Chu in a league of their own.

That’s a lot of praise, coming for a political party that is otherwise dedicated to saying ‘no’ to every administration initiative. Duncan started off in January with a great deal of support from both parties. And unlike in some of Obama’s other policy initiatives, the administration’s education policy has won wide praise from party leaders on both sides of the aisle. While the overall economic stimulus bill is grossly unpopular (due to public ignorance of economics), one component has won praise: the $4.35 billion challenge grant fund administered by the Department of Education called the “Race to the Top“. The largest pot of discretionary funds every given to the Education Department, the challenge grants are designed to reward states for, in the President’s words, “adopting rigorous standards and assessments, recruiting and retaining high quality teachers, turning around low-performing schools, and establishing data systems to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.”

The Race to the Top (RttT) is really a mini pre-view of the coming Education Bill, testing out ideas and getting states ready to implement them. While RttT is drawing fire from teachers unions and the usual cast of characters as “Bush III“, it has drawn praise from a wide swatch of politicos. Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton teamed up with Duncan to do a pro-reform road show earlier this year to sell the RttT grants and to have a listening tour before NCLB reauthorization.

There had been some worries that when Duncan and the Department developed specific criteria for handing out the discretionary funds that standards would be watered down and the money handed out indiscriminately. But the draft list of proposed rules that opened for public comment in July had strict provisions, making sure that only states actually making real reforms would get the money. In fact, the draft rules have already prompted some states to reform their own education legislation in order to be eligible for the money.

The battle to come: private infighting, public agreement

Education is the one area where Americans still have  overwhelming confidence in Obama. Over the summer when his approval numbers were falling and net approval (approves-disapproves) on the economy was -1 and healthcare was -6, Obama had a +23 spread on his handing of education. And for good reason. Arne Duncan has managed to maintain his popularity with policians from both parties, and the RttT grants are actually pushing some real reform. We should expect big things from the coming Education Bill.

The real battle to watch, however, won’t be public support or politicians’ public endorsements of reform. Because of broad agreement among education reformers in both parties, there is likely to be little partisan squabling. The battle to come is going to be waged within parties, between politicians who represent entrenched institutional interests like the teachers unions, and reform-oriented politicians. That is a bipartisan problem, but it particularly effects Democratcs, whom the teachers unions have historically supported. My next analysis on this subject will probably look at key democrats on the Congressional committees that will oversee education reform, and assess their willingness to push real reform to the detriment of teachers’ unions’ interests.

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3 Responses to “Getting ready for education reform: part 1”


  1. 1 Kevin Johnikin November 12, 2009 at 3:53 am

    Thank you for the info.It really makes me wonder why, I supported Obama. I’m a public school teacher and all the changes being put forth are not being done by educators. THAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM.

    • 2 JSC5 November 12, 2009 at 9:10 am

      People who reformed the civil service back in the late 19th and early 20th century weren’t from the civil service. People who reformed public health in the early 1900s (setting drug standards, cleaning up the meat packing industry) weren’t members of those industries. I disagree with your premise that an education reformer must be an educator. I think that while we salute educators for doing what they do, we can also recognize that good ideas can often come from someone outside looking in. As an educator I would deeply respect your opinion about your own kids’ achievement, but when it comes to statewide or nationwide achievement, or funding formulas, or regulatory frameworks for charter schools, or developing new standards … I’m not sure that an educator is clearly the best person for the job. Maybe an education policy specialist would be better. The jobs are distinct. After all, we put civilians at the head of the military and business consultants (not mailmen) advise the post office on restructuring.


  1. 1 Joint Stock Company Trackback on November 12, 2009 at 3:54 pm

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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