The Dems go back to school

The stated purpose of the "National Task Force on Public Education," appointed by President Clinton's former chief-of-staff John Podesta, was to "address the challenges facing our education system in an increasingly complex and interconnected world." Its true purpose was to carve out an education agenda for the Democratic Party. That's no easy task. Five years after George W. Bush scrambled education politics by embracing the "new Dems'" platform of stronger federal power, top-down accountability, and increased spending (and in doing so narrowed the "Who do you trust on education?" gap between the two parties from 27 percent during the Clinton-Dole race in 1996 to just 9 percent in 2000), Democrats are still struggling to regain their footing. Should they reach to the reactionary right like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who last week sued the federal government on grounds that NCLB is an unfunded mandate and an invasion of states' rights, putting him in the unfavorable position of defending his state's yawning achievement gap? Should they lurch to the loopy left and embrace the arguments of Richard Rothstein, the unions, and others who declare education improvement impossible until poverty is eradicated? Or should they cling to the syncretistic center, with its grand bargain of reform in return for resources?

Thankfully, the task force of policy makers, scholars, and business leaders chose the latter. The objectives expressed in its report, "Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation," are clear - and right: close the achievement gaps within our country, as well as between the U.S. and its global competitors. Its tone is positive. There's little of the defeatism spotted in the latest Educational Testing Service poll, which found only 26 percent of teachers believing that all students are capable of reaching high academic standards. And plenty of its policy prescriptions deserve embracing: more time on task; high expectations, standards, and accountability; and connecting schools with families and communities.

Many of the specific recommendations, to be sure, are familiar and questionable liberal stalwarts: make pre-K education universal; support more after-school programs; dramatically boost federal funding; include measures other than standardized test scores in accountability systems; increase resources for social services. But some are counterintuitive. There's a call for a longer school day and year, for example, and the cited model is none other than the Knowledge is Power Program. (Read last week's KIPP write-up here.) There's a proposal to redesign U.S. high schools so that they prepare every student for college (sorry, voc-ed teachers). There's a hint at voluntary national standards (Why not go all the way and make them mandatory?) and justified criticism of state standards and their definitions of "proficiency," which are all over the map. Most shocking, there's a call for merit pay: "Traditional salary structures should also be reexamined and aligned with the state standards and accountability systems now geared toward raising student achievement." True, the report goes on to say that such pay systems should be "negotiated with teachers unions"; still, this feels like something out of The West Wing rather than real life.

This report is good news for school reformers. It signals a convergence among the leadership of the two major parties over several key ideas: all students should be held to the same high standards; parents should have a choice among quality schools; teachers should be paid and treated like true professionals; funding should be equitable and follow the child. Rather than entirely heeding their teacher-union base and turning No Child Left Behind into a wedge issue, Democrats in this report are largely embracing and building upon that legislation. (Perhaps this is explained by the selection, as task force co-chair, of George Mason University professor and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, whose daughter Amy, employed by Education Trust, was as much an architect of NCLB as anyone.)

We hope that Republicans will take this opportunity to declare victory and work across the aisle to improve our schools. After all, there are plenty of other issues to fight over besides education. But there's a real danger that, at the very moment a bipartisan, results-oriented coalition is in sight, the GOP will allow its own anti-federalist base (led by the likes of Utah state senator Margaret Dayton) to take it back to the wilderness of "intelligent design" and "local control." That would be a disaster for the party and a lost opportunity for the nation. If  Democrats can put a little needed distance between their traditional "base" and their education reform priorities, Republicans should be able to do at least as much.

You can read the task force's report, "Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation," here.

"The Connecticut Stakes," Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2005 (Subscription required)

"President's Edge on Education Dwindles," by John Harwood, Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2005 (Subscription required)

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