Monday, January 30, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Obama’s State of the Union Address

RiShawn Biddle's take on Obama's State of the Union address:

There is honestly little to say about yesterday's State of the Union address. Although President Barack Obama did make clear that he was staying the course on his school reform efforts, he offered little in the way of specifics. While it may be a tad surprising in one way, it isn't because education reform has been the one part of his agenda that has garnered largely bipartisan support (witness outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' praise of the president during his rebuttal). On the other hand, Obama's short-term economic stimulus efforts and push for healthcare reform are the areas that have been his greatest political weaknesses — and threats to his re-election prospects — so he naturally spent more time on touting proposals such as a "January surprise" federal refinancing of home mortgages that could be a short-term boon for homeowners (even as they remain in debt for decades to come).

But the good news is that Obama is, at least rhetorically, not backing down from systemic reform. His call for removing laggard teachers from the classroom once again reminds the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that they can no longer count on the Democratic Party for unquestioned support of the traditional teacher compensation system the unions have long defended. So does the possibility that the administration will try to expand the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps finance performance pay efforts by states and districts. Considering that his fellow congressional and senate Democrats (especially those facing stiff re-election campaigns), still count on NEA and AFT dollars to finance their campaigns, Obama can't full out call for an end to tenure. But his rhetoric can be used cannily by those rightly pushing to abolish near-lifetime employment policies that harm children and make it difficult to remove laggard teachers. All in all, he is still pushing for teacher quality reforms embraced through Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grant programs.

…The bad news is that Obama once again remains silent on Parent Power and school choice. Certainly the administration will continue to push for the expansion of charter schools. But Obama had a chance to directly call out California's state legislators, who are considering AB 1172, which would allow traditional districts to shutter the expansion of charter schools in the nation's most-populous state if the bureaucracies deem them a negative fiscal impact. Obama could have used the State of the Union to call for states to take charge of approving charter school openings and taking this role out of the hands of traditional districts (which is essentially akin to letting Red Lobster decide if an Applebee's can open next door). He could also have also pushed for states to move toward the Hollywood Model of Education and away from the traditional district system.

The president also had an amazing opportunity to advocate for the rightful role of parents as lead decision-makers in education — and failed on that front. His unwillingness to embrace vouchers is particularly galling given that, thanks to his taxpayer-funded salary, he and Michelle can exercise choice and Parent Power by sending their two daughters to one of the nation's exclusive (if not necessarily top-performing) private schools, and through his exalted status as the nation's School Reformer-in-Chief. With Parent Trigger laws up for consideration in Indiana, Florida, and  Arizona this year, Obama's call could have rallied Democrats in those states to step up and support Parent Power. Obama could have also called for states and districts to release value-added teacher data so that parents can know the quality of the teachers who have our kids in their care, something that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has supported; the failure to do so is also rather disappointing.

Then there is Obama's continued push to weaken his own school reform accomplishments through the administration's No Child waiver gambit.

…President Obama certainly should get credit for much of his work in spurring systemic reform. But he needs to ditch the No Child waiver gambit — and actually commit to expanding accountability, school choice, and Parent Power — in order to sustain those successes. Our kids deserve a stronger, more-comprehensive push for reforms that can help all of them succeed.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Obama's State of the Union Address

January 25, 2012 No Comments by RiShawn Biddle

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