President Obama’s Real Message

The President’s address to K-12 students next week has attracted some skepticism.

Apart from whatever platitudes are dispensed to American students, the President’s real message on education reform will be delivered early next year, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan makes the first round of Race to the Top grants.  Earlier this summer, the President and Secretary Duncan declared,  “This competition 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.”

I admit to a level of cynicism, fueled by nearly three decades of lofty and ultimately unproductive rhetoric since A Nation At Risk.

How will we know if the President and Secretary Duncan mean business?

A key early test will come from Wisconsin, where Milwaukee’s mayor and the state’s governor have said the prospect of a federal aid windfall should provide a major incentive for approval of legislation allowing a mayoral takeover of the city’s public schools.  The Mayor’s own words raise a real chicken or egg question:

“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated clearly that he believes mayoral governance is essential to reform. This is not only true for the $4 billion in Race to the Top funds but likely will continue to be true for future federal education dollars.”

Does this mean the mayor (and governor) think mayoral control is key, or are they merely attempting to following marching orders from Washington D.C.?  Both Mayor Barrett and Governor Doyle are well into their second four-year terms of office.  Why haven’t they moved on this issue sooner?

There is scant evidence that Wisconsin is poised to make the kind of decisions that represent real reform.  As education reporter Alan Borsuk wrote recently, “There it was again last week: A chart from a reputable national education organization that put Wisconsin at the top of the list, provided you were standing on your head.”

Borsuk continued, “The New Teacher Project…created a scorecard of the chances of each state to win some of the $4.35 billion to be given out by the U.S. Department of Education to places where there are bold, well structured plans to improve low-performing schools.  Wisconsin had the worst scorecard of all 51 candidates (including the District of Columbia).”

Further, he noted, “A couple of years ago, Education Sector…rated the states on how they were dealing with the No Child Left Behind education law. Wisconsin was rated as doing the best job in the country of evading the consequences of the law. The organization called it the Pangloss index, after a fictional character who believed everything was in its best possible condition even when it wasn’t. We were the most Panglossian state, so to speak.”

The basic message from Mayor Barrett and Governor Doyle?  Basically, “never mind.”  There are big bucks on the table.  The mayor and governor want state legislators to produce evidence in the next few weeks that Wisconsin is eager and ready to do what it has failed miserably at.

If Secretary Duncan somehow concludes that Wisconsin is ready to partake in the race to the top, it will be an ominous sign that he does not mean business.  Surely other states will offer a more compelling opportunity.

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