Has Barack Obama been reading The Gadfly?

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's head-turning education speech in Dayton Sept. 9 was notable for stepping away from several planks dear to traditional Democratic thinking. The national audience surely paid attention. But did his fellow Democrats in the Buckeye State? Doubling spending on charter schools, promoting performance pay for teachers, and removing poor teachers from the classroom may not be new ideas. But they are light years away from what Democratic lawmakers in Ohio-and Gov. Ted Strickland-have been advocating for the last decade.

Case in point: only one elected Democrat from the General Assembly has ever supported legislation that could be called charter-school friendly, and she-a Daytonian-became a pariah in her party and ultimately bolted for the GOP. Yet, Sen. Obama sounded as if he may have snagged an advance copy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's new five-point plan to boost Ohio schools, Accelerating Student Learning in Ohio: Five Policy Recommendations for Strengthening Public Education in the Buckeye State (see here).

The report calls on state policymakers to:

  1. Create world-class standards and stronger accountability mechanisms. Ohio needs to build on its progress by aligning its K-12 standards with the knowledge and skills needed for success in post-secondary education and today's global economy and by benchmarking its standards against high-performing states and nations.
  2. Ensure that funding is fairly allocated among all children and schools. To ensure that monies are allocated fairly, efficiently, and accountably, and are targeted at the differing needs of children, the current system should be replaced by a weighted-funding plan. Per-pupil amounts would be "weighted" according to the specific needs of individual youngsters and follow them to the public schools they choose to attend.
  3. Recruit the best and brightest to lead schools and empower them to succeed. Ohio should recruit school leaders from many different professions and backgrounds. These leaders should be fully empowered to lead their schools. They should receive substantial bonuses for improving student achievement, and their job tenure should be directly linked to school performance.
  4. Improve teacher quality. Open the doors to talented college graduates and mid-careerists, help good teachers become great, and create a competitive compensation system and sustainable retirement system. Empower school leaders to engage, deploy, compensate, develop, and retain top instructional talent.
  5. Expand the quality of, and access to, a range of high-performing school options. One-size-fits-all education doesn't work. Students and parents need the ability to choose the best school options based on calendar, academic emphasis, pedagogy, philosophy, and technology. Public-education alternatives also provide needed competition to traditional schools so that all schools can improve. The state also needs to strengthen its capacity to overhaul and close schools that persistently fail to deliver results.

Since Strickland, after two years in office, has yet to set forth his own education plan, perhaps the leader of his party can assist. Strickland's own just-concluded 11-city "listening" tour of the state yielded the same-old, same-old establishment bromides for fixing Ohio schools: more money, heavier regulation of schools of choice, caps on new charters, and diminished emphasis on standards and accountability.

What accounts for the difference? At least in part, it's that Gov. Strickland was hearing mainly from educationists while Sen. Obama was speaking primarily to the general public about education. But are they ships in the night? How big will the difference between them turn out to be when the time arrives for legislative compromising?

We note that the Illinois senator is not yet spending much political capital to advance his proposals. He often signals that the versions of those proposals that he could actually get behind are those that teachers (and their unions) could support. He has, of course, been endorsed by both national teacher unions. And both released statements praising his Ohio speech.

Obama is walking a fine line on education. It's reform-minded but not union-repellent. Earlier this summer, for example, he told the American Federation of Teachers that he supported incentive pay for teachers but spoke out against private school vouchers. While union members aren't likely to flock to a Republican candidate, Obama needs them to flock to the polls if he is to win Ohio and the presidential election. So he knows what lines not to cross.

Strickland, a more local politician, feels like he must pay real attention to teacher unions on education issues. The question is, why? Strickland was never threatened in the general election in 2006. He overwhelmed Ken Blackwell, his Republican opponent. The teacher unions aren't going to flock to the next Republican nominee. Education moderates might wonder why the governor hasn't spent some of his vast store of political capital, so it's logical to conclude that, in fact, he really believes in moving away from standards-based education and schools of choice. His first state budget, for example, would have decimated charters-good ones and bad ones alike (see here). Now there is much talk among his advisors and allies about neutering Ohio's standards-based accountability system (see here).

Obama's adoption of education positions that run counter to traditional Democratic positions is based in his own experience representing a legislative district in Chicago, where charters have been helpful in pushing public education in the right direction. Merit pay also makes sense to him. Top, veteran teachers, out of the goodness of their hearts, have not been flocking to work in inner city schools, so Obama figures that maybe good, old-fashioned, selfish monetary incentive ought to be given a chance-more pay for a tougher job.

Critics will charge that Obama is simply copying some of the education language John McCain and other conservatives have been mouthing for years. But remember, during an election there's a whole lot of lying and cheating going on so why not stealing too, if the children benefit? In the end, it doesn't matter who espouses a good idea-whether it is marked R or D-as long as it gets done.

A version of this editorial appeared in the September 18 national Education Gadfly (see here).

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