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One thing is certainly clear after yesterday’s general elections: The White House will be occupied by a school reformer-in-chief.  But then, that was a fait accompli. As Dropout Nation noted throughout this year, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee who lost his bid to unseat the incumbent, both share similar positions on systemic reform (regardless of what their respective surrogates and supporters attempted to proclaim). A strong federal role in education will remain so. This is certainly not pleasing to either education traditionalists such as the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers (who found themselves backing Obama’s re-election in spite of their strong opposition to Race to the Top and the administration’s other reforms), or to congressional Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (or to former school reformer,and likely Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Ranking Minority Member Lamar Alexander). But Romney wouldn’t have proven to be any better for either side. So they were stuck either way.

At the same time, Obama’s victory should be worrisome to reformers, especially centrist Democrats who are the dominant force within the administration on education policy. The administration’s evisceration of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions through its waiver process is doing more to weaken the very reform efforts centrist Democrats embrace than any opposition from traditionalist circles. From the embarrassment of approving 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, to revelations that states are being allowed to provide inaccurate and deceptive graduation rates, there is little about the Obama waiver gambit that has proven to beneficial to advancing systemic reform. If anything, it has exposed the administration’s penchant for shoddy implementation of programs, and has shown how it generally ignores concerns raised by its own peer review panels about waiver proposals. There will be plenty of recriminations over the next year among centrist Democrats over what Obama and U.S. Secretary of Secretary Arne Duncan are wroughting on this front.

As for Obama and Duncan? They will now have to figure out what to do next. By giving 33 states and the District of Columbia carte blanche to ignore No Child, they have given traditionalists, suburban districts, and congressional Republicans such as Kline what they really wanted — gutting accountability — without having to actually do the job themselves. This, along with the need to tighten the federal purse-strings (and thus, an end to the kind of stimulus spending that helped finance Race to the Top and other efforts), weakens the administration’s hand in advancing its reform efforts. Obama and Duncan will have to get creative, especially since this time around, they are working to secure their legacy. One can hope that such creativity starts with working with congressional leaders on both sides to craft a new version of No Child that maintains and actually expands accountability to include the nation’s university schools of education. But that’s hoping for too much.

Meanwhile reformers have some important lessons to learn from the results of this year’s statewide elections. And they need to apply what they have learned to upcoming election races in the next two years, especially in New York City (where the nation’s most-successful reform-minded mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is leaving office), and Los Angeles (where counterpart Antonio Villaraigosa is termed out).

First the good news: Reformers have succeeded in convincing families and taxpayers to expand school choice and Parent Power. Voters in Georgia smartly moved to approve Amendment 1, which moves the authorizing of charters from traditional districts (and the school boards that operate them) to the Peach State government, which will allow more charters (and wider arrays of high-quality school opportunities) for all children. In Washington State, voters have approved Initiative 1240, which will allow 40 charters to be opened over the next five years. This move ends the Evergreen State’s status as one of only nine states in which charters are not allowed to exist (and ends the embarrassment of reform outfits based in the state such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been one of the strongest proponent of the charter school movement). While Florida voters failed to approve Amendment 8, which would have ended the religious bigotry-driven Blaine amendment banning the use of public school dollars for expanding access to high-quality private school options for poor and minority kids, successful efforts earlier this year by reformers to expand voucher-like tax credits shows that Sunshine State leaders are still committed to expanding choice and Parent Power. Expect a Parent Trigger law, along with other choice measures, to be passed next year.

Meanwhile the NEA and AFT didn’t score any affirmative victories. If not for the outsized influence of Los Angeles on California’s electorate, the non-school reform measure that is Prop. 30 wouldn’t have likely passed, and the two unions wouldn’t have had a real victory in that state. The effort in Michigan to make collective bargaining a constitutional right failed miserably. Certainly the NEA did score a nice victory in Indiana with the loss of state Supt. Tony Bennett to its favored candidate, Glenda Ritz. But as I explain later in this piece, it had less to do with the union than with the brewing debate over Common Core reading and math standards.

Yet reformers cannot be heartened by the results at all. Washington State gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna’s likely defeat at the hands of NEA-backed rival Jay Inslee makes clear that reformers must do a better job of making the connections between the nation’s education crisis and the economic ills that plague much of the nation (and especially urban communities such as Seattle, which delivered the decisive blow to McKenna’s campaign), as well as the consequences of voting for candidates who are beholden to traditionalists looking to defend their influence. McKenna’s defeat, along with that of Idaho’s teacher collective bargaining ban and effort to overhaul traditional teacher compensation (initiated by the NEA after Gov. Butch Otter and Supt. Tom Luna successfully garnered legislative backing for them last year), and the defeat of the effort in Bridgeport to put the faltering school district there under mayoral control, also serve as reminders that reformers must do better at rallying grassroots support, especially among the 51 million single parents, grandparents caring for children, and immigrant households. As weakened as NEA and AFT affiliates may be, they still maintain an advantage when it comes to the political ground game, as well as in using dollars to co-opt old-school civil rights groups and progressives. The fact that reform outfits such as Stand for Children and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst didn’t do something as simple and effective in building support as holding voter registration drives proves that the movement has miles to go before they master the political game.

At least those are issues reformers can immediately address. But there are no easy answers to the questions raised by Indiana Supt.  Bennett’s re-election defeat.

Photo courtesy of StateImpact Indiana

Two things should be clear. The first: Given the philosophically conservative nature of the Hoosier State’s electorate, and their general skepticism of anyone too-closely associated with so-called outsiders (an issue Bennett faced after news reports noted the strong campaign dollars coming from reformers across the nation), Bennett’s loss isn’t that surprising. After all, outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels faced a setback in his equally aggressive reforms of state government two years into his first term in 2006 after voters handed back control of the Hoosier State’s lower house to his Democrat rivals. At the same time, one cannot fully surmise Bennett’s defeat as a harbinger of things to come for the school reform movement, both in Indiana and the nation at large. As seen in Indianapolis, where three reform-oriented candidates have gained seats on the board of the worst-performing district in the Midwest outside of Detroit, Indianapolis Public Schools, in spite of the opposition of the NEA affiliate there (and that of failed school leader Eugene White, who has presided over IPS’ continuing decline), reformers can win elections.

More importantly, the pace of reform is unlikely to slow down, and Ritz won’t likely be able to roll back any of Bennett’s efforts. Why? Because there is still the presence of longtime reformers such as former state senator Teresa Lubbers — who now heads the state’s higher education commission, a key player in spurring overhaul of education since the days of her predecessor and partner-in-reform, Stan Jones — Robert Behning (who chairs the state house’s education committee), and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar, who sits on the powerful Education Roundtable with other longtime reform advocates. There’s also the presence of former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, whose Mind Trust is the leading force for centrist Democrat reformers in the Hoosier State, and the efforts of Peterson’s successor, Greg Ballard, in the area of authorizing charters and pushing for IPS’ overhaul. The lesson for reformers is clear: Reformers can weather election defeats if they build strong, diverse, and (contrary to the argument of American Enterprise Institute honcho Rick Hess, and Democrats for Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson’s statement last year that “only Democrats have a good chance of persuading other Democrats to move on” reform] bipartisan coalitions.

Yet what is so worrisome about Bennett’s loss is that at least one poll has shown that much of Bennett’s loss is likely attributable to movement conservatives, who opposed his successful effort to adapt Common Core reading and math standards (and their misplaced and unjustified fear that the effort, driven tacitly by the Obama administration’s own reform efforts, may lead to national standards that our schools probably need). One can imagine that more Common Core opponents — especially conservatives in the school reform movement — will step up their efforts to roll back Common Core, and may even get the American Legislative Exchange Council (the outfit that serves as the galvanizing body for Republican and conservative politicians) to finally pass a statement opposing the effort. This, along with similar sentiment among the most-rabid of education traditionalists, may lead Bennett’s soon-to-be former colleagues who have backed Common Core (and the reform-minded governors and legislators who support them) to either step away from Common Core or appease foes by watering the standards down. [By the Way: An earlier version wrongly characterized the poll, conducted by the Howey Political Report, as an exit poll.]

The fact that a sensible reform that most people can support when broken down succinctly can play such a key role in the defeat of a reform-minded state education leader should scare reformers. It should especially frighten Common Core supporters, who have failed so far to deal honestly and decisively with their opponents — especially otherwise-sensible conservative reformers such as Jay P. Greene and Williamson Evers, who cannot honestly say that maintaining the status quo on curricula makes any sense at all. As Dropout Nation admonished Common Core supporters last August, they need to be to be more humble about what improving curricula standards can and cannot do, should be honest about the long-term goal of creating national curricula (as well as make the compelling case for why it is needed), and need to stop the hand-fisted approaches to selling Common Core that have done nothing but play into conspiracy-theorizing. By the way: This need for candor extends beyond Common Core.

The intra-movement sparring over Common Core (and the blame-gaming in which Hess and others are already engaging) leads to another matter that reformers must address. As I mentioned, a diverse coalition is at the heart of the success of the school reform efforts and the reason why it has achieved as much as it has. At the same time, when you have a group of idiosyncratic liberals, slightly doctrinaire political conservatives, centrist Democrats,  business-oriented Republicans, young black and white urban families, and religiously-oriented households in the same big tent, there is also going to be plenty of disagreement over strategy, philosophy, and direction. The conflicts that come from these differences guarantees vibrant conflicts that helps crystallize, clarify, reveal, humble, and strengthen the movement’s efforts (and makes it intellectually honest compared to the traditionalist side). At the same time, as the civil rights movement learned five decades ago to its detriment, factional disagreements can also lead to the kind of splits that limit any future successes. The movement needs honest admission among all sides that their respective positions aren’t the absolute best way. The movement and its leading lights need to keep in mind the ultimate goal: Brighter futures for all children, regardless of who they are or where they live.

The good news for the school reform movement is that there is still plenty of momentum and support for overhauling American public education. But reformers must also keep in mind that as much of their success has come from the failings of traditionalists rivals as the movement’s own success in showing how its solutions are the best and moral approach to addressing the nation’s education crisis. The movement must do more than be blessed by the quality of thinking and politicking of those who would rather keep in place policies and practices that fail the futures of our children. Instead, it must become savvier in playing the political game.

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