What the election results portend for education reform: Cheers and Frets

By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli

Reasons for Cheer

1. In a year when the Democratic nominee was practically guaranteed to win the White House, the most reform-minded Democratic candidate won. While his education policies are inchoate and imperfect, Barack Obama's positions on charter schools, merit pay, and even No Child Left Behind point toward a thoughtfulness and willingness to buck the status quo that were strikingly different from the postures of his closest competitors.

2. Support from the teacher unions was not essential to Obama's sweeping victory and frees him--if he's so inclined--to advance policies and programs that they don't love, perhaps starting with charter schools (one of the few issues enjoying bipartisan support during this election).

3. As the first African-American president, Obama will be uniquely positioned to use his bully pulpit to exhort parents, particularly minority parents, to uphold their responsibilities to foster their children's moral and intellectual development. Done right, this could be a powerful complement to whatever formal policies he puts forward.

4. Republican Senators will maintain a hedge against Democrats' worst impulses, keeping as they did the potential for filibuster. This could give reform-minded Republicans (such as Lamar Alexander) and/or Independent Joe Lieberman a pivotal role on education, as the Democrats will need them in order to pass major legislation. Even in the House, Obama's allies will need GOP support if they want to embrace reform, since so many Democratic members do owe their victories to the NEA.

5. George W. Bush's exit, and John Boehner's likely demise as House Minority Leader, remove any obligation for Republicans to swear fealty to No Child Left Behind in its present form and liberate them to turn it upside down the next time around.

Reasons to Fret

1. Changes in control of several state legislatures--the New York Senate,* the Ohio House, for starters--will make it harder to sustain key education reforms (e.g. charter schools) and enact new ones (e.g. performance-based pay) in those jurisdictions.

2. The education schism within the Democratic party--and inside the Obama camp--will echo through every key decision that the President-elect makes in this field, beginning with his choice of education secretary (Joel Klein? Jim Hunt? Linda Darling-Hammond, Jon Schnur, Randi Weingarten?), his approach to NCLB, and much more.

3. The upcoming battle for the soul--and leadership--of the Republican party will reverberate through every key issue, including education. There's a big schism here, too. Will the past (near-total reliance on parental choice and local control) prevail or will education become a key plank in a new Republican vision of the future (e.g. transforming the governance and delivery system with accountability built in)?

4. With enormous challenges facing the nation at home and abroad, and the incoming administration laden with campaign promises in a dozen other areas, education is likely to loom no higher on Washington's agenda than it did during the presidential campaign.

5. Federal and state budgets will be tight beyond belief, making it hard for political leaders of either party to promote a next generation of bold education policies.

* Bill Phillips of the New York Charter Schools Association tells us not to worry about the Empire State. "We are in a better position, not worse.???? There are two, maybe three times as many pro-charter Dems as Republicans in the Senate.???? The likely Senate majority leader, Malcolm Smith, founded two charter schools.???? To put it mildly, 'he gets it.' Including Governor Paterson, two of the three most powerful positions in state government will now be occupied by charter allies."

Above right photograph: Shiny happy people by Donna Cymek from Flickr

Above left photograph: Six-year-old King Feisal of Iraq, circa 1942, from Library of Congress

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