Obama & Duncan: Democrats after my own heart

Winning the award for pretty much the least surprising news ever is that the National Education Association (NEA) has slammed President Obama's Race to the Top (RttT) initiative, a $4.35 billion competitive grant program for states to support educational reforms and innovation. The NEA has eloquently pared down the program's stipulations into several choice buzzwords and phrases that are sure to make its members' blood boil (whether or not they've actually read RttT's proposed criteria and regulations). Here are the main criticisms extended by the NEA (and other teachers unions, I would venture to guess) as well as the hypothetical response of a Democrat who used to find herself disliking her own party on many education issues, until Obama and Duncan came along:

1) NEA: Obama's school improvement plans are "narrow," "top-down" and not much different from the Bush administration's mandates (hint: include as many references to NCLB as possible; it is education's own "weapons of mass destruction" and it will make everyone very uncomfortable).

Reform-minded Democrat: Obama's reform agenda is based on several components. He wishes for states to develop highly effective teachers, create high standards and assessments, build high-quality data systems, and turn around struggling schools. This doesn't seem narrow to me. Even so, "narrowness " and "wideness" are not the criteria upon which I'll judge his reform plans. "Effectiveness" matters more.

2) NEA: RttT just extends more federal mandates that will "usurp" the rights and responsibilities of state and local governments (hint: use words like "centralized" and "federal control").

Reform-minded Democrat: Fine by me. If federal intrusion will help set higher academic standards and force states to comply with reforms that can help all students achieve, then have at it. Usurp all you want.

3) NEA: Obama's mandates have no "research base of success" (hint: what we mean is that his mandates are not based on the research that we selectively like and which serves our collective interests-e.g. smaller class sizes, teachers' certification, Darling-Hammond-ish evidence that castrates Teach For America).

Reform-minded Democrat: Yawn. I'm tired of this debate. But my heart flutters when I hear quotes like this from Obama: "This competition [RttT] will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle-whether a state is ready to do what works." Let's hope the President stays true to this lofty rhetoric.

4) NEA: "Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears that the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America's public schools... and all must comply with that silver bullet."

Reform-minded Democrat: Um, really? When was this memo sent out? I must have missed it. Whether or not states have restrictive charter laws is one of 19 different criteria in the RttT competition; it is not one of the eligibility criteria. Certainly, Duncan wants states to lift arbitrary caps on charter schools because he has seen how they work for poor kids in atrocious school districts, but being charter-friendly is not a precondition for winning the money. I understand that crying "charter school" is like saying "death panels" at a health care town hall meeting, but let's get real. Neither Duncan nor Obama believe charter schools are a silver bullet.

5) NEA: We like your intention to raise standards and improve teacher quality, but we don't approve of performance pay, linking student achievement to teacher evaluations, and emphasizing standardized testing too much makes us feel uncomfortable (hint: We're in serious trouble now that high-profile democrats are starting to support these things).

Reform-minded Democrat: So, you support higher standards and teacher quality but don't like creating ways to measure or reward higher standards and teacher quality?

It should be interesting to see how Obama responds to these criticisms. We must hope that the interests of children will trump those of unionized adults who protect the status quo beyond all else, and that more people-on both sides of the political aisle-will start to recognize when those two things come into conflict.

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