Monday, January 04, 2010

Straddling the Democratic Divide

A long article in Education Next on “Straddling the Democratic Divide”, with a nice quote from DFER’s Joe Williams:

“I wasn’t born with a lot of advantages, but I was given love and support, and an education that put me on a pathway to success,” Obama said during a major campaign speech on education last September in Dayton, Ohio. “The reason Michelle and I are where we are today is because this country we love gave us the chance at an education. And the reason that I’m running for president is to give every single American that same chance.”

Joe Williams believes that all of those factors, as well as Obama’s personal commitment to improving education, create a real opportunity to bring about systemic, long-lasting changes. “Everyone says they support the goals of NCLB and if that’s real, then he can use his bully pulpit to say that we’ll do in education the equivalent of saying we’ll put a man on the moon in 10 years.

“He can say that we will make sure that every kid who starts the race will cross the finish line and it will give everyone goose bumps and start a new type of discussion about what the game is. But it only has the potential to change the game if he treats it as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and inspire people to think very big about what is possible,” adds Williams. “Obama is the only person I’ve seen in the last 20 years who may be up to that job.”


Straddling the Democratic Divide

Will reforms follow Obama's spending on education?

By Richard Colvin

Spring 2009 / Vol. 9, No. 2

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Senate confirmation hearing in January was thick with encomiums. He was praised by Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa for the “fresh thinking” he brought to his post as Chicago schools chief for seven years. Republican Lamar Alexander, education secretary under George H. W. Bush, told Duncan he was the best of President Barack Obama’s cabinet appointments. Ailing Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, in written comments entered into the record, praised Duncan for having “championed pragmatic solutions to persistent problems” and for lasting longer in Chicago than most urban superintendents.

The warm greetings given by both Republicans and Democrats on the committee reflect Duncan’s reputation as a centrist in the ideologically fraught battles over education reform. He has received national attention for moves favored by reformers, such as opening 75 new schools operated by outside groups and staffed by non-union teachers; introducing a pay-for-performance plan that will eventually be in 40 Chicago schools; and working with organizations, including The New Teacher Project, Teach For America, and New Leaders for New Schools, that recruit talented educators through alternatives to the traditional education-school route.

At the same time, Duncan maintained at least a cordial working relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, and both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) backed his nomination. He supported the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), but also called for dramatic increases in spending to help schools meet the law’s targets, and additional flexibility for districts like his own. In nominating Duncan, Obama said, “We share a deep pragmatism about how to go about this. If pay-for-performance works and we can work with teachers so it doesn’t feel like it’s being imposed upon them…then that’s something that we should explore. If charter schools work, try that. You know, let’s not be clouded by ideology when it comes to figuring out what helps our kids.”

Given the strong union support for the Obama presidency, there was great speculation within education circles throughout the fall as to whether the new president would turn out to be a reformer—willing to challenge existing practices and the teachers unions in order to achieve dramatic changes in schools—or play it politically safe by backing programs that brought only marginal changes. A sharp divide among Democrats was in full view at the party’s national convention in Denver, where urban mayors and educators, gathered at a forum sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), challenged the dominant role of teachers unions in shaping policy. Newark mayor Cory Booker told those assembled, “We have to understand that as Democrats we have been wrong on education, and it’s time to get it right.”

Even before the national convention, conflicts between the unions and Democratic reformers were intensifying. At a New York fundraiser in 2007, Obama reportedly made a similar point. According to Joe Williams, DFER’s executive director, Obama incriminated the teachers unions when the director of a Harlem charter school asked the then candidate why Democrats threw up so many obstacles.

Williams explained, “We’re at this point where the nation wants to change education more than the unions and the unions are going to have to decide if they’re going to be part of the change or be left out of it entirely.”

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