Would a Republican Congress Be Good for School Reform?

Note: This blog entry, by Checker Finn and me, also appears in this week’s Education Gadfly.

One of the most interesting developments of recent years has been the rise of reform-minded Democrats. It’s not just President Obama and Secretary Duncan; all over the country we see state legislators and municipal leaders beginning to challenge the unions and embrace charter schools, rigorous teacher evaluations, even public-sector pension reform. One case in point is Colorado, where the successful push for ground-breaking tenure reform legislation was led by Senator Mike Johnston and Representative Christine Scanlan, Democrats both.

Left unsaid—and taken as a given—is that Republicans are already in the reform column. And that’s often true at the state and local level. Indeed, in the Centennial State, the entire Republican caucus voted for the tenure-reform bill, leaving Johnston and Scanlan needing to scrounge up just six Democratic votes in the majority-Democratic House. Some joke that the country doesn’t need “Republicans for Education Reform” because that’s simply synonymous with “Republicans.”

Alas, that’s not so in Washington. There it’s fairly obvious that the GOP doesn’t know what it stands for on education anymore—partly because much of its reform agenda has been co-opted by Messrs. Duncan and Obama, partly because it has long tended (at least in Congress) to ignore this topic, partly because it has much else on its none-too-robust policy platter. The House GOP’s brand-new Pledge to America doesn’t even mention the word “education.”

Where you can detect a pulse on education, you can spot Republican instincts on reform colliding with deeply held principles of federalism. And with “tea party” sentiments riding high (and some candidates again calling to abolish the Department of Education while purging thoughtful folks like Mike Castle), it looks like “local control” and “states’ rights” arguments may rule the day should the GOP take over one or both houses of Congress.

Consider the recent comments, in an Education Week interview, of Representative John Kline of Minnesota, an intelligent, patriotic and hard-working lawmaker who would likely chair the education committee in a Republican House. He told the newspaper that he wants to put “some meaning back into local control” when reauthorizing ESEA. He’s watching the Common Core State Standards “very closely,” warning that if the feds get involved in “putting in a de facto national curriculum,” his “caucus will rebel.” And he wouldn’t support an extension of Race to the Top, which he sees as too prescriptive. “This is the U.S. Department of Education putting [out its] view of what needs to be done…It’s not the states deciding. It’s not local control.”

We know and like Mr. Kline, and share many of these concerns and sentiments. There’s little doubt that the Common Core will be better off (substantively and politically) without federal involvement. We, too, found Race to the Top to be overly prescriptive. And we certainly agree that Washington typically does more harm than good when it tries to micromanage schools from the Potomac.

But that doesn’t mean the GOP should reflexively revert to weary old themes that emphasize states’ rights, local control, and parental choice—and tell Uncle Sam to basically butt out. That won’t get them, or the country, very far.

States’ rights in education today mean weak standards, shaky accountability, ed school monopolies in preparing teachers and principals, limited (and resource-starved) school choices, meaningless certification and regulation requirements, and scant freedom for those running schools to ensure that they’ll be effective.

Sure, some states are honorable (partial) exceptions to this glum litany but—honestly—not many. Without cajoling, bribing, nudging, and scolding from Washington, we suspect there would be fewer, not more. The fact is that state legislatures are where the traditional public-school establishment wields the most power and is best able—often working behind the scenes—to keep anything much from changing. (In Colorado, most of the Democratic members of the state House education committee are former teachers—and current union members.)

Local control of education is an honorable mantra but its track record, too, is pretty bleak. If school boards, superintendents, and local teacher unions put top priority on raising standards, narrowing gaps, emphasizing quality in the classroom and running world class schools, America wouldn’t be where it is. In urban America and many suburbs, local control means union dominance. (Check out Waiting for ‘Superman’.) In other suburbs, it means smug complacency.

Parent choice, another GOP favorite, is a fine thing but (a) there isn’t nearly enough of it (the establishment at work again via statehouse and union contract), (b) too many of the available choices are abysmal, and (c) a lot of parents—painful as this is to say—make mediocre education choices and then stubbornly persist with them. This doesn’t do much for either kid or country, at least not by way of academic achievement.

In sum, the old GOP education agenda isn’t what 21st America needs and recycling it, while surely easier and perhaps safer than thinking anew, isn’t going to do the job.

We made our own attempt at thinking anew two winters ago, when we unveiled our proposal for “reform realism.” The goal is to make the federal government a force for change, but with much greater humility about what it can actually accomplish from afar. Our reasoning, then and now, is to move toward a “tight-loose” approach to education governance: “tight” as to the results we want our schools to achieve but “loose” as to how schools, districts, and states get there.

The Obama Administration’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization isn’t a bad summation of “reform realism” in action, and Republicans should seize much of it. Trashing “adequate yearly progress,” devolving authority back to the states when it comes to “accountability,” and killing the “highly qualified teacher” provision are all in line with Kline and company’s instincts around state and local control—and well worth doing.

But the GOP should also embrace some of its reform aspects, too, like turning more formula grants into competitive ones and promoting tenure reform. And in fact, in the Education Week interview, Kline indicated that he might want to do that. He and Secretary Duncan see eye to eye, he said, about needing to “break the tenure stranglehold that the teachers’ unions have had all across the country. … We both agree that we need some way to remove the bad teachers and reward the good teachers.”

We hope that a Republican takeover might lead to a productive policy environment, with the GOP even teaming up with the Administration to promote the “tight-loose” framework. But that’s no sure thing. Just as likely is that the Party of Lincoln will become the party of “local control”—and give up on education reform altogether. That, in our view, would be an enormous lost opportunity.

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