Republicans to Save Obama’s Education Reforms—and Perhaps His Presidency?

Despite the rapidly changing political scene, there is reason to expect new action on the education policy front as soon as 2011 pops up on your electronic calendar.

First the politics:  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s about to lose her job. Neither pollsters nor pundits nor even the White House press secretary are willing to give her hope of escape.

Democrats have a much better chance of hanging on to the Senate, but nothing close to a filibuster-proof majority is in the making.  Quite the opposite–the president will have to wave the veto flag constantly to keep a Republican/conservative Democratic coalition from reversing the direction of his national agenda.

Speaking of vetoes, the president didn’t do so well when he threatened one this past week, just before House Democrats did their best to de-fund Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top in order to finance a union-backed initiative that would save some teachers their jobs.

Since the Senate was primed to kill that idea, all the commotion on the House side was little more than an effort to secure handsome teacher-union funding for upcoming campaigns. Yet the debacle underlines the lack of support among House Democrats for Arne Duncan’s education reforms.

But the day of the House Democrat is passing, thereby creating a new opportunity for Duncan and Obama.  They will soon have a legislative majority that can give them backing for reforms that up until now they have been promoting by executive hook and regulatory crook.

Will a Republican majority in the House, coupled with a conservative majority in the Senate, throw the president a lifeline?  As the presidential election heats up, many Republicans will urge relentless opposition to everything, even if it fits the education reform agenda.  But that backward-looking strategy will only give substance to inevitable Democratic charges that Republicans are negative nabobs of Know Nothing.  If the president proposes something school reformers like, Republicans will have to sign on.

George W. Bush passed No Child Left Behind with strong bipartisan support, and that one piece of legislation burnished his domestic record enough to give substance to his request to the voters for four more years. Even if 9/11 was by far the dominant factor in the 2004 election, Bush still needed something on the domestic side that had bipartisan appeal.

Without anything like 9/11 to fall back upon, Obama’s political needs are even more urgent.  While a new reform-minded education law won’t necessarily turn him into a two-term president, he needs to play that card.  Watch for action on the education front in 2011.

Paul E. Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard University and is the author of Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning.

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