What the midterm elections could mean for school reform:
The Democratic Party’s Civil War Over School Reform Continues: As far as both centrist Democrat school reformers and the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers are concerned, the midterm elections end up as a draw of sorts. The Democratic Party’s loss of the House of Representatives (along with heavy losses in the Senate) essentially means that neither side will advance their diverging agendas. One could argue that the teachers unions will make a slight gain only because Republicans such as likely House Education and Labor Committee chairman John Kline will work hard to gut the No Child Left Behind Act — including the accountability provisions that include Adequate Yearly Progress measurements.
But in the long run, the NEA and AFT are running scared. The fact that so many Democrats lost despite the $24 million spent by both unions on their behalf in the last week (and $40 million by the NEA alone this year) is one more sign that the NEA and AFT are no longer useful to the party. That President Obama’s school reform agenda remains the only popular aspect of an overall agenda that has been largely rejected by voters this year — along with the fact that reform-oriented candidates such as Joe Manchin and Chris Coons have won their respective races — also means that the two unions will have fewer supporters inside the party ranks.
Then there is the other reality: Centrist and progressive Democrat school reformers believe that education is the most-important civil rights issue of this era. And as University of Arkansas researcher Sandra Stotsky points out, is improving teacher quality — the most-important factor in improving education — is as much a civil rights issue as the rest of the education agenda. But the NEA and the AFT are the biggest obstacles to the much-needed overhauls in teacher recruitment, training and compensation that are critical to the school reform agenda. These realities and conflicts in visions all but guarantee more in-fighting within Democrat ranks for years to come.
The Republican Infighting Over School Reform Has Just Begun: As I noted in my American Spectator column last month, Kline’s ascent into the House Education and Labor Committee chairmanship won’t be nearly as pleasing to conservative and libertarian school reformers as they may think. If Kline eliminates AYP, he has essentially eliminated a tool that has so much to shed light on the woeful condition of American public education. His reticence about using federal power to push for the expansion of charter schools also bodes poorly for school choice supporters, who have been able to count on Congress and the last two presidents to advance their cause. Don’t expect the GOP to offer up a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship-style voucher plan or a Race to the Top-style effort to expand charter schools.
Expect a clash within the congressional Republican camp as reform-minded conservatives of the standards-and-accountability bent (including soon-to-be speaker John Boehner, who helped usher in No Child when he was education committee chairman) battle over policy with the Kline camp (who represent suburban districts that have long-opposed reform efforts) and movement conservatives with small government leanings and a desire to dial back federal policy in all areas. Also expect reform-minded Republican governors (many of whom have successfully used No Child and Race to the Top) to advance their agendas to also voice their objections to Kline’s local control-oriented agenda. No matter how you look at it, education may prove almost as vexing for Republicans as it is for Democrats.
A Mixed Story at the State Level: It depends on the state and even the region. With school reform-oriented Republicans gaining control of Indiana’s lower house, expect the state’s school superintendent, Tony Bennett, to push for additional reforms on the teacher quality front and an expansion of charter schools throughout the state. In the southern states, it’s a mixed story: In Nathan Deal, Georgia gets another governor with almost no interest in embracing either charters or taking on tenure (not that the losing candidate, former governor and onetime reformer Roy Barnes, would have made a difference). As Dropout Nation noted on Monday, school reform advocates in other southern states ( with the exception of Florida, Louisiana and possibly, South Carolina) will struggle to gain traction.
California will be an interesting situation. With once-and-future governor Jerry Brown succeeding the reform-minded Arnold Schwarzenegger, one wonders if the state will retrench from its spate of Race to the Top-driven efforts. At the same time, Democrats for Education Reform has recruited outgoing state senator Gloria Romero — an architect of the state’s parent trigger law — to lead their grassroots advocacy efforts in the Golden State. Then there is also the continuing reform activity within the L.A. Unified School District.
No matter what happens, the next two years will be interesting indeed.