Watching how education policy will play out after Tuesday’s elections:
The Michael Bennet Question: Centrist Democrat school reformers cheered Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet’s apparent victory over Republican Ken Buck. Given the money that they handed over to him — including $11,000 from Democrats for Education Reform’s PAC alone — they should be happy. But here’s the thing: The National Education Association also poured $1.4 million into efforts to keep Bennet in office — and likely put a lot of bodies on the ground to help him out too. Given Bennet’s vague and short record on school reform (both as Denver’s school superintendent and in the Senate), can reformers actually count on him when push comes to shove? In politics (as in much of life), money and bodies talk; everything else walks. Bennet will definitely listen to the NEA leaders — and less so to his reform allies.
This leads to an important point for school reformers everywhere: It will take more money and more bodies on the ground in order to sustain the decade of gains that have been made on the policy front. As weak as the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers may be (and will become), they still have both in spades. More importantly, the two unions have worked hard to build modestly successful alliances with other organizations in order to move their agenda (and to back-check those of the school reform movement). School reformers are slowly learning this lesson; the $3.5 million raised by DFER and Stand for Children proves that. But reformers are still too focused on working statehouse corridors and Capitol Hill; they must reach out and get to work in the grassroots to ensure long-term gains.
Will AYP Die?: A major fear among reformers is that the ascent of John Kline to the chairmanship of the House Education and Labor Committee will lead to the gutting of the Adequate Yearly Progress and other accountability provisions within the No Child Left Behind Act. Given Kline’s own statements, the focus of some House Republicans on a return to local control, Obama’s own “blueprint” for reauthorization of No Child, and the fervent longstanding opposition of teachers unions and suburban districts to any kind of accountability, the fear is understandable.
Yet, despite the carping from opponents of No Child and all the discussions about gutting it, nothing has happened. Why? For one, there remains a core group of influential reformers — including former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, congressmen on both sides of the aisle, and reform-minded governors, who know that AYP has done more to focus the nation on dealing with the widespread problems within American public education than any other policy decision in the past five decades. Reform-oriented governors, in particular, have successfully used AYP as cover to enact reforms that would otherwise be resisted by the status quo. Expect someone like a Mitch Daniels (who may run for the Republican presidential nomination) to privately remind Kline and his colleagues of this.
Also, any effort to eliminate AYP will open up a hornet’s nest of issues. For one, the feds spend more than $150 billion a year on education; how can this money be spent without any accountability whatsoever? In fact, one reason why AYP was created was to finally bring some check and balance to how school districts and states spent federal money after decades of getting so much cash and showing no results for it. The only way to truly end accountability is to eliminate federal spending altogether; given that suburban school systems such as those in Kline’s district — along with state coffers — depend on Title I money — the latter isn’t going to happen. And the congressional Republicans can’t get rid of accountability without looking rather, umm, fiscally unconservative and profligate.
Any effort to gut AYP will also involve coming up with compromise version of No Child. Considering that the GOP is looking to give Obama as few victories as possible — and that Republicans themselves are as divided on school reform as their Democratic colleagues — this isn’t likely to happen. What is more likely is a stalemate between the leaderships in both houses and Obama (who may find it to be a good idea to drop the entire idea of eliminating accountability as a way to rally reformers among his base).
Finally, Common Core State Standards expands the need for accountability. After all, what is the point of developing national curriculum standards if states and school districts don’t fully enact them? Although the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (whose contradictory support of Common Core and opposition to No Child is an interesting dance) has argued that this can be done through a nonprofit national board, it isn’t going to work — especially since the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (which developed Common Core) don’t want to give up their roles as its guardians. Essentially, Common Core calls for a more-expansive role for the U.S. Department of Education and greater accountability.
In short, AYP may die — and still end up remaining alive and stronger than ever. Long live AYP!