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June 08, 2011
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Richard Whitmire worries that Republican governors are pushing too far too fast on school reform?and that a big backlash is coming?or might already be here.
My sense is that the school reform movement?roughly defined as those who believe that schools alone can make a dent in the seemingly intractable problems arising from the confluence of race and poverty?is headed into a major beat down.
Why the pessimism? I'm watching Ohio Gov. John Kasich make one of the most boneheaded moves I can imagine, trying to solve his budget problem by trimming back union collective bargaining while simultaneously imposing school reforms such as ushering in better teacher evaluations.
Does he really think teachers horrified at a peel-back of their collective bargaining are going to embrace a new teacher evaluation system? A similar package of twinned reforms is working its way through the Tennessee legislature. In Ohio, teacher union officials vow to place the governor's reforms on the November ballot, putting both budget and education reforms at risk.
Set aside for a moment Whitmire's, well, boneheaded analysis on the policy merits of Kasich's reform plans. (What's the point of introducing a rigorous teacher-evaluation system if poorly performing teachers can never be fired, thanks to provisions in collective-bargaining agreements? And does Whitmire really believe that teachers in Ohio were going to ?embrace? tougher evaluations were it not for Senate Bill 5? Clearly Whitmire hasn't done much of the ?on the ground? reporting he likes to promote?in Ohio at least.)
Still, Whitmire raises an important strategic question: When pushing for major reforms, is it best to ?go for broke??even knowing that it will lead to a backlash?or better to go slow and steady? I don't know the answer, and maybe there isn't a rule that applies to all situations. And it's hardly just education reform that faces the dilemma. Consider President Obama's push for healthcare reform. Many conservatives have argued that he went too far, well to the left of the electorate. And sure enough, a resulting backlash cost him control of Congress last November.
But I suspect that Obama knew the risks and would do it all over again?because he achieved a major reform of the healthcare system that will be hard to undo. And the 2010 backlash is likely to fuel an equal and opposite backlash by 2012 as House Republicans push too far to the right.
Back to education. Try this thought experiment: You're John Kasich, or Mitch Daniels, or Scott Walker. Because of favorable ratios in your legislature you have a free hand to push the pedal to the metal on education reform. Do you go for broke?promoting school choice, tenure reform, teacher evaluations, curtailing bargaining rights?or do you play it safe? If you're worried about re-election, a middle course might be smart. But if you believe in what you're doing and want to make maximum progress in the long-term, going fast and furious isn't crazy. Yes, there will be a backlash. Yes, teachers will feel upset in the mid-term. Yes, you will energize the teachers unions to turn out big in the next election cycle. And yes, that will lead to some lost ground. But if you keep the long view, you'll surmise that some?maybe most?reforms will stick. And it's worth the short-to-medium term pain.
Again, I don't know the ?right? answer to the backlash question. But I do remember quite clearly that left-of-center reformers like Whitmire had no qualms with Arne Duncan using his free hand under Race to the Top to be aggressive. Now it's Republican governors with a free hand; shouldn't the same rules apply?