Is 2010 the Year for NCLB?

The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib is wise in the ways
of Washington and practiced at reading its political entrails. But is
he right to think that K–12 education is the great centrist issue of
2010--and that it will reignite the Democrats’ prospects by appealing to
independents and least a few Republicans? Hmmm.

In a column on Democratic “opportunities to disperse storm clouds,” Seib wrote the other day
that party leaders need to “find an issue that is popular in the
political middle,” that some Democrats think education is such an issue,
and that “Education Secretary Arne Duncan is taking steps that have
actual bipartisan appeal.” As examples, he cited “forcing changes in
ossified education systems by making states actually compete to win
federal grants” and “helping parents with college access and
affordability.” He says we should “look for more from the president on

This may well happen as budget and state-of-the-union
time draws nigh and the White House settles on its themes for the year
ahead. Even without opening the Pandora’s box of No Child Left Behind
(NCLB), the administration’s “Race to the Top” (RTT) program will focus
the attention of educators and state and local officials during 2010,
and the administration’s final decisions on RTT will signal much about
its approach to education policy and the federal role therein.

Arne Duncan and his colleagues have hinted that the priorities of RTT
will also animate their NCLB proposal--and that they’re close to
unveiling such a proposal and urging Congress to get cracking.
Reauthorization of that contentious, landmark act is already three years
late, and a big reason for that delay has been the absence of a plan
that both Democrats and Republicans could support. If, indeed, the
Duncan team proffers such a plan, it’s imaginable that Congress will
indeed start to move.

Yet there are obstacles aplenty that have
little to do with NCLB itself. This year brings an exceptionally
hard-fought election. While each party would surely gain by attracting
lots of independent voters, it’s not obvious that “bipartisanship” per
se would turn out to be an asset to either side. The GOP in particular
may judge that its November prospects benefit more from painting the
administration and Congressional majority in the worst possible light
than from cooperating with them. (Indeed, Seib’s analysis suggests that
“bipartisanship” would work to the political advantage of Democrats.)
Underscoring that calculus is the rancid mood left by the health-care
fracas with its 60–40 votes in the Senate. Republicans on the Hill--and a
nation of conservatives--are also still smarting from Obama’s assent to
phasing out the D.C. voucher program. Then there’s the plain fact that
neither Senate education chairman Tom Harkin nor ranking House member
John Kline is anyone’s idea of a centrist.

Duncan is a
centrist sort, however, and--riding the RTT wave (which could still
crash down upon him)--can be expected to strive to convince both sides
that the best interests of kids and schools call for an NCLB makeover
that can only happen if each side yields some traditional ground.

For what it’s worth, we at Fordham sketched such a package
a year ago, and our plan still has merit. Partly paralleling our
suggestions--especially the precept of “tight about ends, loose as to
means,” an inversion of the NCLB approach--but mostly on their own, the
Duncan team emerged from 2009 with astute insights into federal policy
and some appealing NCLB themes of their own.

Duncan and assistant secretary Carmel Martin outlined these in a recent interview with Education Week. In her words,

Continuing a strong focus on teachers and
leaders and talent more generally. To continue to focus on
college-ready common standards and assessments matched against those
standards. Continuing the focus on the lowest performing schools, how
we’re going to take aggressive action to turn them around. And
continuing the focus on the data....Another big to improve the
accountability system...helping to create incentives to move towards
this new higher college- and career-ready set of standards....Continuing
this disaggregation of data and looking at how the subgroups are doing.
Also moving toward the growth model....Having a much stronger focus on
rewards for high-performing schools, high-performing districts,
high-performing states....We’re trying to find ways to create incentives
and rewards for high performers at every level.

Add charter schools--ano
ther Obama-Duncan favorite--
to this mix and one can see, at least thematically, an appealing,
centrist sort of package. Yet actually enacting such a thing, not as
one-time money like the stimulus package, but as part of the
infrastructure of federal education policy for the long haul, will
require major rethinking on both sides of the aisle. Democrats will have
to agree to reward educational success and intervene forcefully in
instances of failure. The former could mean shifting monies away from
what have historically been deemed the “neediest” schools and districts,
while the latter entails actions that teachers’ unions typically abhor.
(So does rewarding exceptionally effective teachers, another oft-voiced
administration priority.) For their part, GOP lawmakers (many of whom
have been critical of NCLB) would need to buy into national (okay,
“common”) standards and tests, to tie NCLB accountability to them, and
to recognize that Washington is now charting the basic direction of U.S.
education and prescribing its goals, norms, and standards.

In return, Republicans may be able to claim substantially increased
state and local discretion in the actual operation of the education
system as well as more and better choices via the charter sector. And
Democrats may be able to boast significantly increased federal education
spending and a laser-like focus on the performance of poor and minority
children and the schools that serve them. The unions would applaud any
loosening of federal micro-management of the “means” of
education--though that will cause the “education reform” community to
gag; they view all the gyrations by states to qualify for RTT dollars as
proof of the efficacy of heavy-handedness by Washington.

an appealing prospect, though, at least to me, and a package with
centrist potential. That it’s a mighty heavy lift politically doesn’t
seem to deter Duncan, who insists that “we really want this to be a
bipartisan effort. We’re spending lots of time in the House and Senate
on both sides of the aisle....I continue to think that education is the
one area that has to rise above politics....The goal isn’t to get to 100
percent consensus. There’s got to be a body of substance that folks can
come together behind. I think we have an opportunity to do that.
Conversations on both sides of the aisle have been very, very

One can only wish him well. It won’t be any walk in the park.

This piece originally appeared in another form on National Review Online.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.