7 for ’11

Want to know what 2011 will bring to the field of education reform? I’m no fortune teller, but I’m happy to offer these educated guesses.

1.      Cathie Black will be gone by Easter. A betting man might say that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will stubbornly hold fast to his choice, but I foresee a breaking point a few months hence. It’ll go down like this: Her gaffes continue, she loses support even among middle-class Gotham parents, she botches the release of teacher effectiveness data, and she stumbles with the politics of budget-cutting. Worried about a mass exodus of the Department of Education’s senior staff, and sensing vulnerability on a marquee issue in his presidential run, Bloomberg finds an excuse to show her the door.

2.      A new ESEA will be law by Thanksgiving. Emboldened by their success in extending the Bush-era tax cuts, Republicans will decide that working with President Obama can pay dividends. Education is widely seen as low-hanging fruit, and the parties put pen to paper in the early spring and have a deal worked out by summer. Mostly this new ESEA is a rollback of No Child Left Behind, with a few reform-minded elements (on teacher evaluations, charter schools) thrown in for good measure. The education establishment and the reform movement grump components of the bill, but it’s all just posturing. Behind closed doors they give their tacit approval for the process to move forward.

3.      Education-establishment groups will file a slew of new funding-equity lawsuits—and charter school groups will join them. Aggressive budget-cutting by states will hit high-poverty districts, and charter schools, the hardest. After all, these systems rely mostly (or entirely) on state funding. (At least affluent suburban districts can tap local sources too.) This will lead to legal action, as urban districts and charter schools find room for common cause. Several of these suits will succeed, throwing state budgets into further chaos.

4.      Michelle Rhee will embrace “paycheck protection” as a part of her agenda. By typical standards, Rhee will raise a lot of money in 2011—in the hundreds of millions of dollars—but won’t come close to her $1 billion goal. Along this golden road she’ll learn a valuable lesson: The teachers unions can easily best her donated capital just by raising their dues. Which they will do. And this will make her a strong advocate for “paycheck protection”—policies that allow teachers to opt-out of political contributions to the union.

5.      At least one large district will go bankrupt. As Rick Hess has argued, several states will create incentives for districts to declare insolvency in order to renegotiate union contracts and other obligations, in the same manner as the GM restructuring. Once successful, this idea will spread like wildfire throughout the country.

6.      “Local control” will come under further attack. The budget crisis will ramp up efforts at district consolidation. States will try to find ways to keep district spending in check. And at least one state—I suspect Delaware—will have serious conversations about eliminating local districts outright and moving to a statewide system of public education.

7.       Diane Ravitch and the teachers unions will criticize budget cuts but offer no alternatives. As states and districts make difficult decisions in the months ahead, Ravitch and the education establishment will attack every specific suggestion. Raise class sizes? Ask teachers to pay more of their healthcare costs? Freeze salaries? Cap stipends for master’s degrees, or years of experience? They will find fault with all of these, but will offer no serious suggestions of their own. As a result, they will implicitly encourage districts to take the path of least resistance: fire their youngest teachers; get rid of art and music classes; and pass along costs to parents in the form of new fees.

Will these come to pass? Who knows? But it is fun to ponder. Check back in a year and we’ll determine just how good of a seer I am.

—Mike Petrilli

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