Whatever one thinks of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last week at the Republican National Convention or actor Clint Eastwood’s mocking of President Barack Obama (with help of an empty chair), this can be said: Republicans made a strong case for their proclamation that they are the party strongest on continuing the reform of American public education. Even as the party itself is divided over embracing Common Core standards, has a retrograde on education in the form of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (who wants to eviscerate the strong accountability measures contained in the No Child Left Behind Act), and had a primary race for the presidential nod that had seen aspirants backtrack (of offer little information) on their respective school reform agendas, Republicans were able to paper over these issues thanks to strong calls by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas teacher Sean Duffy, and onetime Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for expanding school choice, advancing Parent Power, and overhauling how teachers are recruited, trained, managed, and compensated.
Now the Democratic National Committee must show that it is strong on advancing systemic reform. In theory, this shouldn’t be much of a challenge. After all, Obama has until recently made a compelling case thanks to efforts such as Race to the Top, which has managed to force states to lift or modify restrictions on the expansion of charter schools, and allow for the use of student test score growth data in teacher evaluations. But the fact that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers remain key forces within the activist wing of the Democratic Party, along with the success of the two unions in co-opting progressive players means that the party still remains divided over transforming education. Yesterday’s screening of the soon-to-be-releases film Won’t Back Down at the Democratic National Convention, and the sparring match between AFT President Randi Weingarten and centrist Democrat reformers weeks before the showing over its Parent Power message, was as much a reminder of this divide as it was another sign of the ascendancy of reformers over traditionalists within the party. The unwillingness of Democrats to embrace broader school choice beyond charters in its party platform (along with the presence of a teachers’ union official among those writing it) also makes it difficult for the party, and centrist Democrats in particular, to ballyhoo its reform bonafides.
But for centrist Democrats, there is another challenge in proving that the party will push for reform — and it lies not with either NEA and AFT activists, or the MoveOn.org crowd. It lies with the incumbent president and Democratic Party standardbearer himself. Thanks to the Obama administration’s own effort to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions through its waiver gambit, the president (and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) have done more to weaken the very reform efforts centrist Democrats embrace than any opposition from traditionalist circles.
Certainly the Obama administration has done plenty to advance reform in the nearly four years since it took office. Even as states such as Hawaii struggle to implement proposed initiatives funded through Race to the Top, the it has already done more to expand school choice in the past three years than under Republican predecessor George W. Bush. The administration’s clever tactic of structuring Race to the Top as a competitive grant has helped reform-minded governors get state legislators on board with their formulas for school reform (and ultimately, Obama’s approaches) they would have otherwise resisted — even if they don’t get a dollar of federal funding. This has been helpful to school choice activists, teacher quality advocates, and those pushing for school and district overhauls, who can now see new charter schools being formed, more-objective teacher evaluations being put into place, and districts being forced into fixing schools. Another competitive grant effort, the Investing in Innovation program, has poured dollars into proven curricula and reform models that would have otherwise gone without funding (and, like programs such as Direct Instruction, would have merely been allowed to go unnoticed). In the process, the Obama administration has put congressional Republicans such as Kline (as well as fellow Democrats) in the awkward position of defending traditional program-centered grants such as Title 1, which have proven to do little more that prop up traditionalist approaches that do little to provide children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds.
Yet the Obama administration’s successes — and that of the centrist Democrats who backed them — are now being overshadowed by the mess that is the No Child waiver gambit.
The administration has already had to struggle with the embarrassment arising from its approval of Virginia’s abysmally low proficiency targets, which had only required districts to ensure that 57 percent of black students (and 65 percent of Latino peers) were proficient in math by 2016-2017. Thanks to the reporting of VirginiaWatchdog.org‘s Kenric Ward (the first reporter to break news about the Dominion State’s low expectations for poor and minority children, and the outrage from reformers and civil rights groups, the U.S. Department of Education was forced to push the Old Dominion into adopting slightly more-ambitious proficiency targets. But the fact that the Obama administration granted Virginia a waiver in the first place in spite of its record of obstinacy on systemic reform, along with the fact that many of the 32 other states granted waivers (along with the District of Columbia) have also set low expectations for districts and schools to improve the achievement of the poor and minority kids in their care, has put President Obama in the uncomfortable position of supporting the soft bigotry of low expectations for children — especially those who share his race and skin color. And this fact guarantees that there will be even more embarrassments to come.
Another problem emerging from the waiver gambit lies with the fact that the Obama administration is granting waivers to states (and allowing them to ignore whole sections of No Child) even thought they have not yet implemented or enacted all the proposals within their applications. This will prove particularly problematic if the states cannot actually get those proposals off the ground — and there is plenty of reason to believe this can happen. New York State, for example, is having trouble implementing its new teacher evaluation regime because New York City, Buffalo, and other districts can’t reach agreement with AFT affiliates opposed to using student test score growth data in performance management. Michigan and Ohio could also face similar problems in enacting their respective teacher evaluation overhauls. Given that the administration has few ways of holding states accountable for fulfilling their promises, one can easily expect a problem to crop up later this year, right in the middle of the president’s tough campaign for re-election.
Meanwhile civil rights-based school reformers may put the administration on the spot with their opposition to the waiver gambit. One issue that they will likely raise lies over the matter of graduation rate targets — and how states may try to game them. The Obama administration, for example, has allowed Indiana, Louisiana, and South Dakota to count General Education Development certificates in their graduation rate calculations. This is in spite of decades of evidence that has long-ago showed that GEDs are not what comedian Chris Rock once called good enough diplomas, and that the ex-dropouts who gain GEDs fare as badly as dropouts who never go back for such shoddy credentials. The fact that graduation rates account for fewer than a third of performance on their respective accountability indexes — and in the case of Kentucky, just 14 percent of performance on its index — means that dropout factories will be allowed to slip under the radar.
These issues, along with the fact that the Obama administration seems not to be paying attention to what is happening inside the states to which waivers have been granted, and has generally ignored concerns raised by its own peer review panels about waiver proposals, makes it hard for centrist Democrat reformers to make the case that the School Reformer-in-Chief is doing a credible job advancing reform. In fact, it allows for Romney and conservative and Republican reformers acting as surrogates for his campaign to make a strong case that neither Obama nor Duncan are fit to take on the tough task of advancing systemic reform from the federal level; given that swing states such as Virginia have been granted waivers despite their poor records on advancing reform, they can even argue that the waivers are politically-motivated by the president’s re-election concerns (even though there is no evidence of this).
The shoddy implementation of the waiver gambit also plays into the hands of movement conservatives opposed to any federal role in education, who have long-argued that Department of Education bureaucrats mess up everything they touch, as well as help suburban Republicans such as Kline, who cynically play upon those ideological concerns in order to protect federal funding to the districts they represent. Given that education is the one area in which Obama has had a record of success, these failings, along with the reality that he and Romney are both strong on reform, forces the president to campaign on economics, federal fiscal concerns, and job growth, the areas in which he is weakest.
But the problem isn’t just one for Obama alone. After all, it was centrist Democrat reformers (along with liberal Democrat reform allies) who pushed the administration early on to call for a speedy reauthorization of No Child, and stood by over the past year as Duncan and his team at the U.S. Department of Education have engaged in what can be best called a misinformation campaign that has denigrated No Child’s accountability measures as being broken. Save for Andy Rotherham and Charlie Barone of Democrats for Education Reform, centrist Democrats allowed Duncan to proclaim that as many as 90 percent of schools would be found academically failing under No Child — even as data has proven his statements to be, to put it kindly, not even close to being on-target. They have also failed to call the administration on the carpet for the process it has used for granting waivers, even as more evidence has proven that it is just winging it, and continue to proclaim the waivers as a good idea even though it is essentially damaging the reform efforts they are pushing at the state level.
The damage being done by the waivers isn’t just to Obama’s re-election campaign. As Dropout Nation has argued for the past year, the waiver gambit weakens the decade of strong reform efforts which No Child’s accountability provisions have helped usher (including Obama’s own initiatives). By eviscerating No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, the administration also takes away real data on school performance, making it more difficult for families from being the lead decision-makers reformers need in order for overhauls to gain traction, and complicating the activities of researchers (including those doing state-by-state comparisons). By allowing states to focus on the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps), the administration is also letting districts not under watch off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula. And in blessing moves to replace subgroup accountability with A-to-F grading systems and “super-subgroup” measures, schools and districts can ignore their obligations toward the poor and minority kids in their classrooms and still appear to be exemplary.
Centrist Democrat reformers must now decide whether they should live up to their principles and call out Obama for failing to live up to his reputation as a reformer, or sit quietly out of loyalty to party. Given that it will take a bipartisan effort to advance reform at all levels of government, they can’t simply stay silent while the president weakens the conditions for overhauling American public education.