Obama and Ohio's Dems race to victory--now they must get along

It's a cliché, perhaps, but one worth repeating. The real winners in Tuesday's election are the people of Ohio. An incredible number turned out to vote (rivaling the record set in 2004), and a clear majority delivered the state's electoral votes to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. As Thomas Friedman observed in today's New York Times, this election was not only a complete rejection of President George Bush, but also "a rebellion against a traditional Democratic version of the common good-that is simply the sum of all interest groups clamoring for their share" (see here).

Now, Obama's historic election as president of the United States sets the stage for a clash between Obama's reform-minded idealism and the entrenched interests of his party. Education will be a central front in this struggle, and how it plays out nationally will impact what happens in Ohio.

Specifically, it is easy to contrast Obama, who appears to be an educational free-thinker looking for solutions, with Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and the soon-to-be majority Ohio House Democrats. Up to now, Strickland and his fellow Dems have been joined at the hip with the teacher unions, which have largely "had it up to here" with the Republican education-reform efforts of the last decade. Those efforts, mirroring what has happened in other states, have brought accountability through state standards, statewide testing with high-stakes attached to the results, and value-added measures to gauge progress. Importantly, these reforms have also provided parents and students in urban areas a chance to opt out of broken schools through charter schools and even vouchers. This competition has undeniably triggered district innovations in long-suffering districts like Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton.

There is every reason to think that Obama will want to follow through on the reform education agenda he outlined in a major speech in Dayton during the campaign (see here) where he advocated for more charter school spending and merit pay for teachers. As a politician from a major city (Chicago) in a major industrial state (Illinois), Obama has seen the damage that broken schools can do to a city's poorest and neediest children, many of whom are children of color. He and his wife are a living testament to the power of education to make dreams possible. Obama's early education was a mix of Catholic schooling and home schooling in Indonesia at the knee of his mother. As a pre-teen and teenager he attended an elite Honolulu prep school.

In Chicago, as a community organizer and later as a state lawmaker, he witnessed the efforts of Mayor Daley and superintendents Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan to turnaround Chicago's troubled public schools by embracing standards and accountability, encouraging the growth of a charter-school sector, and empowering individual school leaders to run schools for the interests of their children as opposed to the interests of the adults who worked for the school system.

But, in Illinois, the efforts to expand Chicago's charter school program-an effort supported by the city's Democratic mayor, the city's school superintendent and school board president and the business community-has been repeatedly rejected in the statehouse in Springfield because it is opposed by the state's teacher unions. Any serious Obama reform efforts in Congress also will confront union opposition. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association spent big money and exerted lots of effort to help get Obama elected and they surely expect some payback for their efforts, or at least not a direct slap to the face. They fought long and hard to help him win Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other industrial states (see here).

The first indication we will have to gauge how reform-minded the Obama administration is actually going to be will be his choice for Secretary of Education. Choosing a reformer like Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J. who has embraced and supported the city's quality charter schools; former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has a passion for education; or Chicago's Arne Duncan would say he is hiring someone likely to pursue a reform agenda focused on the needs of children even if it comes at the ire of established interest groups. On the other hand, selecting a Linda Darling-Hammond, a favorite of the unions, would send a far different message.

In Ohio, Democrats took control of the Ohio House in no small part on the coattails of President-elect Obama, as well as the long hours worked by Gov. Strickland crisscrossing the state on behalf of his party. After wandering in the political desert for the last 14 years, Democrats now have a 53-46 majority in the House. That means, when the 128th General Assembly gets under way in January, Strickland's attempts to reform the state's education and school funding systems will have easier sledding. Will the governor's agenda be a reform-minded one akin to what Obama has sketched out or pay-back time for the teacher unions and their allies?

We will know the answer to this in early 2009 when the governor puts forth his biennial budget proposal, which is expected to include his much-anticipated education reform plan. Appropriations measures originate in the House, and a friendly chamber is likely to introduce a budget bill that closely mirrors the governor's proposal. Contrast this scenario with 2007, when Strickland proposed a budget that would have, among other things, strangled the state's charter program and killed off the nascent EdChoice voucher program (see here). The House version of the budget neutered the governor's more radical proposals, and leaders from both parties worked toward compromises to pass the budget.

With the House likely to rally around the governor's agenda in 2009, the Republican Senate will serve as the check-and-balance. With a solid 21-12 majority and seasoned Senate President Bill Harris at the helm, the Senate won't roll over easily to a Democratic agenda they find offensive; especially if it comes across as a partisan effort to dismantle many of the education reform efforts put in place by the Republicans since the mid-1990s.

The State Board of Education will serve as another counterbalance to Gov. Strickland. Though changes to education policy can be enacted via legislation, the board has important power over policies and implementation. Nine months ago Strickland called for diminishing the role of the board and giving more power to a governor-appointed director of education. He has said nothing more on this front of late, and last month, when the state board hired Deborah Delisle as the new state superintendent, Strickland vowed to work with her toward "building a world-class education system for Ohio." Yesterday's election results may cause him to revisit the need for an education czar directly answerable to him.

Delisle doesn't work for the governor and her new bosses may not be as closely aligned with Strickland as he had hoped. Seven state board seats were up for election this year. Just two of the candidates endorsed by the Ohio Education Association (see here) were victorious. Strickland's sole appointee on the board, Akron homemaker Heather Heslop Licata, lost her seat by a 61 percent to 38 percent margin. Rob Hovis, who was first appointed to the board by Republican Gov. Bob Taft in 2004 and whose term ends in December, won a four-year elected seat on the board. Strickland will get to appoint four members to the education board in December, but, like the Senate, the 2009 State Board of Education isn't shaping up to be one that will give carte blanche to the governor should he want to move education in a totally new and uncharted direction.

So, school reformers in Ohio shouldn't despair. Rigorous academic standards are important, so are school and student assessments; and school-choice programs are vital to give urban parents and students a chance to attend decent schools. If Obama stays true to his campaign pledges, and Ohio's Democratic leaders take heed, there is a real possibility that education in Ohio could move in a positive and bi-partisan direction. This would truly be for the "common good."

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