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The Democratic Divide By: Richard Colvin
Education Next | Monday, March 16, 2009


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Senate confirmation hearing in January was thick with encomiums. He was praised by Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa for the “fresh thinking” he brought to his post as Chicago schools chief for seven years. Republican Lamar Alexander, education secretary under George H. W. Bush, told Duncan he was the best of President Barack Obama’s cabinet appointments. Ailing Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, in written comments entered into the record, praised Duncan for having “championed pragmatic solutions to persistent problems” and for lasting longer in Chicago than most urban superintendents.

The warm greetings given by both Republicans and Democrats on the committee reflect Duncan’s reputation as a centrist in the ideologically fraught battles over education reform. He has received national attention for moves favored by reformers, such as opening 75 new schools operated by outside groups and staffed by non-union teachers; introducing a pay-for-performance plan that will eventually be in 40 Chicago schools; and working with organizations, including The New Teacher Project, Teach For America, and New Leaders for New Schools, that recruit talented educators through alternatives to the traditional education-school route.

At the same time, Duncan maintained at least a cordial working relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, and both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) backed his nomination. He supported the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), but also called for dramatic increases in spending to help schools meet the law’s targets, and additional flexibility for districts like his own. In nominating Duncan, Obama said, “We share a deep pragmatism about how to go about this. If pay-for-performance works and we can work with teachers so it doesn’t feel like it’s being imposed upon them…then that’s something that we should explore. If charter schools work, try that. You know, let’s not be clouded by ideology when it comes to figuring out what helps our kids.”

Given the strong union support for the Obama presidency, there was great speculation within education circles throughout the fall as to whether the new president would turn out to be a reformer—willing to challenge existing practices and the teachers unions in order to achieve dramatic changes in schools—or play it politically safe by backing programs that brought only marginal changes. A sharp divide among Democrats was in full view at the party’s national convention in Denver, where urban mayors and educators, gathered at a forum sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), challenged the dominant role of teachers unions in shaping policy. Newark mayor Cory Booker told those assembled, “We have to understand that as Democrats we have been wrong on education, and it’s time to get it right.”

Even before the national convention, conflicts between the unions and Democratic reformers were intensifying. At a New York fundraiser in 2007, Obama reportedly made a similar point. According to Joe Williams, DFER’s executive director, Obama incriminated the teachers unions when the director of a Harlem charter school asked the then candidate why Democrats threw up so many obstacles.

Williams explained, “We’re at this point where the nation wants to change education more than the unions and the unions are going to have to decide if they’re going to be part of the change or be left out of it entirely.”

Two manifestoes issued during the Democratic primaries laid out competing philosophies on improving student achievement that were intended to influence the eventual Democratic nominee. A “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,” a letter issued by the liberal Economic Policy Institute, signed by national leaders across much of the political spectrum, and endorsed by the AFT, argued that improving schools alone would not close achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students. It called on policymakers to provide preschool, afterschool programs, and summer school, and take steps to improve students’ health and social development. Another letter, issued by a coalition called the Education Equality Project, advocated addressing school system failures through greater accountability, school choice, and changes in compensation that would promote teacher quality. Those who signed on to the project, a diverse group of leaders in education, philanthropy, and public service, vowed to “challenge politicians, public officials, educators, union leaders and anybody else who stands in the way of necessary change.”

Obama has allies in both camps. Arne Duncan was one of only a handful who signed both statements. Yet in his confirmation hearing, Duncan left little doubt that the administration wants to make systemic changes.

“We must do dramatically better,” Duncan told the Senate committee. “We must continue to innovate. We must build upon what works. We must stop doing what doesn’t work. And we have to continue to challenge the status quo.”

Advisors to Obama say the rhetorical distinction was overdrawn and that the thrust of the president’s strategy is to make progress without causing further polarization. His education platform reflected that approach. Like many Democrats, he wants to spend more money: on helping students attend college; early childhood care and education; and improving teaching through mentoring and professional development for both principals and teachers. He has criticized NCLB for encouraging teaching solely focused on preparing students to pass tests. But in line with many Republicans and more conservative Democrats, Obama, like Duncan, supports school choice, charter schools, performance-based pay, and alternatives to education schools for teacher preparation (see sidebar). He and his opponent, Senator John McCain, both praised the work of Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has fought the local union as well as the AFT over tenure and teacher pay.

Economic Stimulus

Widespread agreement that only a massive stimulus package could rescue the U.S. economy presented the new administration with the opportunity to placate both sides of the Democratic divide. The unions and their allies would get a massive infusion of federal funds into the schools that would help offset state and local budget cuts. And this would give Obama cover to push for tougher reforms down the road.

House Democrats, after negotiations with Obama’s team, in mid-January proposed a stimulus package of $825 billion that included between $120 billion and $140 billion for public schools and colleges. Most of the money would have few strings attached.

The spending package would boost federal spending on Title I programs for low-income students and for special education, distributing the money according to current formulas. It would also provide at least $39 billion to offset state cuts in education budgets and $20 billion for capital improvements at schools and colleges. About $15 billion would be available to states as bonuses for efforts such as ensuring that low-performing schools and districts have effective teachers and that the performance of English-language learners and special education students is properly assessed (see Figure 1). One Obama aide said similar incentives would be incorporated into education programs to be introduced later in the spring.

Article Figure 1: The $825 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act proposed by House Democrats in January would provide at least $80 billion and possibly as much as $120 billion in new funding to Department of Education programs for elementary and secondary school students.

The stimulus package also proposed to boost funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), a Bush-era program that provides financial incentives to teachers and principals who raise overall student achievement and close achievement gaps. After Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, they zeroed out funding for TIF but restored $100 million for the following year. In his last budget, Bush requested $200 million for the program, the same amount Obama’s team has proposed.

Thirty-six states plus the District of Columbia already have local or statewide teacher compensation systems that add some sort of financial incentive to the standard step-and-column pay plan, according to the NEA. Former NEA president Reg Weaver cautioned that “while we can be open to alternatives, we should always oppose politically motivated, quick fixes designed to weaken the voice of teachers and the effectiveness of education employees. If they want to talk about changing the way we’re paid, they need to do that with us, not to us.”

In Obama’s platform, he agreed that such plans should be developed in consultation with teachers. Among the promising models is a voluntary pay-for-performance program in place in districts in a dozen states, funded in part by TIF, and implemented by Duncan in Chicago. The Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) provides teachers with professional support, helps them to use data in instruction, holds them accountable for results, and provides bonuses. Teachers in 10 Chicago schools voted to participate in TAP starting in the fall of 2007, and bonuses totaling $340,000 were given out the following year for improved test scores at 9 of the schools. “This is a landmark event for Chicago’s schools—recognizing and rewarding educators for exemplary work and compensating them accordingly,” Duncan said at the time.

The scale of the proposed spending on education is stunning, more than doubling the federal contribution. Of course, even an increase of that magnitude would leave the feds as the junior investors in public education, their contribution dwarfed by current state and local spending. But the funds proposed to offset cuts in state funding would mean that, for the first time, the federal government would be directly covering the cost of basic school operations. That kind of money could buy a lot of goodwill, especially if it helps states avoid laying off thousands of teachers. By December 2008, 19 states had cut K–12 education spending, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group. Even with the infusion of federal support proposed so far, states may have to make further cuts in their education budgets if the economy does not improve quickly. States spend between one-third and one-half of their budgets on elementary and secondary education, and the revenue available to state and local governments is shrinking fast. By January 2008, states had reported deficits of $350 billion. “If the economy doesn’t get better, schools are in trouble,” said Jack Jennings, founder and CEO of the Center on Education Policy. “For the sake of the schools it’s important that Obama pay attention to the economy.”

Even if the economy recovers and the stimulus package goes through intact, some observers question whether the proposed spending will do enough to address persistent disparities in achievement.  Despite past federal support directed toward the needs of low-income students, African American 4th and 8th graders did not make measurable progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2005 and 2007. “Is the stimulus going to benefit kids in ways that are palpable and real and that improve achievement?” asked Dianne Piche of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights.  As the House was passing its version of the stimulus package (see Figure 1), Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute noted that most of the money simply gave states dollars to keep intact the programs of the past:  “It’s like an alcoholic at the end of the night when the bars close and the solution is to open the bar for another hour,” he told a New York Times reporter.

No Child Left Behind

The pressing economic issues, as well as difficult politics, will likely push reauthorization of NCLB into 2010 or even 2011. California Democrat Representative George Miller, who was one of four members of Congress who worked with the first Bush administration on the original NCLB, wants to see it revised and reauthorized. Yet Miller acknowledged to the Washington Post that “at the end of the day, it may be the most tainted brand in America.”

NCLB has been a great success in the sense that no one disagrees with its goals: accountability for results, addressing issues of teacher quality, putting a spotlight on the learning of all students, and better targeting of funds to districts serving the most disadvantaged students. Still, its detractors argue that the law has had unfortunate side effects: too much time spent teaching to narrow tests, schools focused on boosting the scores of students who are just below the proficiency threshold, and some states lowering their standards to reduce the number of schools missing their achievement targets.

“We’ve learned over the past five to 10 years that we have to align curriculum, align standards, and align tests with professional development,” Jennings said. “We’ve also learned that it is very, very hard to do. We’ve also learned that if we really set certain goals…teachers will pay attention to those students who are just below the goal and not pay attention to those who are further down or further up.”

Obama spoke during his campaign at length about the ins and outs of testing and decried teaching to the test. Rather than abandon the testing in NCLB, he has said he wants to invest in improving assessments, so that they measure a broader range of skills than just the basics.

The battle fought over reauthorization of NCLB in 2007 offers a preview of the challenges the Obama team will face. In a speech at the National Press Club outlining his priorities for reauthorizing the law, Representative Miller said, “Throughout our schools and communities, the American people have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, not flexible, and is not funded. And they are not wrong.”

Hope for Reform

Despite the challenges, many in Washington are hopeful that public schools may in fact improve under an Obama administration. Although he cannot ignore the unions that form a key part of the party’s constituency, Obama owes less to them than did past Democratic presidents. The unions did not support him in the primaries and, because he raised so much money on his own, Obama was not as dependent on their money as others have been. Of course, he is hugely popular with teachers, and the staggering amount of money he appears to be willing to spend on education will only make him more so.

In addition, the leaders of the two unions at least appear more willing to be flexible on some long-standing issues. AFT president Randi Weingarten has said several times that “nothing is off the table” except vouchers. Not that much is known about Dennis Van Roekel, the Arizona math teacher who became president of the NEA last summer (see “Same Old, Same Old,” features, Winter 2009). But he was among those who supported Bob Chase, an earlier NEA president, when he tried to get the union to endorse what he called the “new unionism.” Chase wanted the union to experiment with new forms of performance pay and peer review of teacher performance, but the rank-and-file members nationally were reluctant to go along. It remains unclear how far Weingarten and Van Roekel will be able to push their members now to accept changes in compensation, evaluation, tenure, and so on.

Weingarten finds it “very sad” and frustrating that unions are always blamed for opposing reforms. “There’s a lot of demonizing and blame-mongering going on in education and it’s ridiculous…because it just creates excuses,” she said. “It says to me that they don’t think anything can be done because they are looking for the fall guy rather than helping all kids achieve.”

Weingarten expressed hope that Obama would push for more rigorous standards, better curricula, more valid assessments, and investments in helping teachers improve. “You can’t buy it by putting money out there and saying to teachers, ‘if you don’t do it, you’re fired,’” she said, referring to her opposition to Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. “We have the responsibility…to recruit and support and retain teachers if they’re doing a good job, and if not, to counsel them out of the profession.”

But Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, counters that the unions have resisted that course of action. “I think the unions are up against the wall,” she said. “The whole movement toward the notion that teachers don’t have a basic right to be in the classroom unless they are effective is proving so powerful as an idea that they’re weakened because they’ve run away from it rather than embrace it.”

It is well known that one of the strongest threads in the narrative of Obama’s journey from his childhood to the White House is educational opportunity (see “The Early Education of Our Next President,” features, Fall 2008). Schooled first in Indonesia, he returned to Hawaii because his mother wanted him to get a better education. There, his maternal grandmother and grandfather enrolled him in the private Punahou School, where he studied with the island’s elite. Then, it was on to Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School.

“I wasn’t born with a lot of advantages, but I was given love and support, and an education that put me on a pathway to success,” Obama said during a major campaign speech on education last September in Dayton, Ohio. “The reason Michelle and I are where we are today is because this country we love gave us the chance at an education. And the reason that I’m running for president is to give every single American that same chance.”

Joe Williams believes that all of those factors, as well as Obama’s personal commitment to improving education, create a real opportunity to bring about systemic, long-lasting changes. “Everyone says they support the goals of NCLB and if that’s real, then he can use his bully pulpit to say that we’ll do in education the equivalent of saying we’ll put a man on the moon in 10 years.

“He can say that we will make sure that every kid who starts the race will cross the finish line and it will give everyone goose bumps and start a new type of discussion about what the game is. But it only has the potential to change the game if he treats it as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and inspire people to think very big about what is possible,” adds Williams. “Obama is the only person I’ve seen in the last 20 years who may be up to that job.”

“His vision of education is as a foundation not just of the economy but of a society in which people take care of each other,” explained Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who advised Obama during the campaign and handled education policy for the president-elect’s transition team, in remarks delivered in November 2007 at a National Academy of Education event. “I think we can make great strides in a very short time.”

Although some may worry about the cost of all of the new programs, Darling-Hammond views the amount Obama wants to spend on education as a relatively small part of the overall bailout and recovery package, which could exceed $1.5 trillion.

In his speech last September in Dayton, Obama assured his audience, “We can do it all.”


Richard Lee Colvin is a longtime education journalist and director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teachers College, Columbia University.


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