Obama's Big Test on Education

My former Washington City Paper colleague Amanda Ripley has a cover story in this week's TIME about the DC chancellor of schools Michelle Rhee, who "has promised to make Washington the highest-performing urban school district in the nation, a prospect that, if realized, could transform the way schools across the country are run. She is attempting to do this through a relentless focus on finding--and rewarding--strong teachers, purging incompetent ones and weakening the tenure system that keeps bad teachers in the classroom."

Rhee, Ripley writes, "wants to make Washington teachers the highest paid in the country, and in exchange she wants to get rid of the weakest teachers. Where she and the teachers' union disagree most is on her ability to measure the quality of teachers."

Interestingly, though Rhee is a Democrat, she almost voted for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"It was a very hard decision," Rhee says. "I'm somewhat terrified of what the Democrats are going to do on education."

What does President-elect Obama think? Tough to say. He has supported merit pay for teachers, which teachers' unions oppose, and heralded Rhee. He has been a strong advocate of charter schools and in 2002 said he was "not closed minded" on the subject of vouchers, though since then he has come out against vouchers. Over the Summer, I asked him why.

"The problem is, is that, you know, although it might benefit some kids at the top, what you're going to do is leave a lot of kids at the bottom," he said. "We don't have enough slots for every child to go into a parochial school or a private school. And what you would see is a huge drain of resources out of the public schools. So what I've said is let's foster competition within the public school system. Let's make sure that charter schools are up and running. Let's make sure that kids who are in failing schools, in local school districts, have an option to go to schools that are doing well.

"But what I don't want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the public schools," Obama continued. "That's going to make things worse, and we're going to lose the commitment to public schools that I think have been so important to building this country."

In March, Josh Patashnik of The New Republic took a closer look at PEBO and education, writing that Obama "has long advocated a reformist agenda that looks favorably upon things like competition between schools, test-based accountability, and performance pay for teachers. But the Obama campaign has hesitated to trumpet its candidate's maverick credentials. As an increasingly influential chorus of donors and policy wonks pushes an agenda within the Democratic Party that frightens teachers' unions and their traditional liberal allies, Obama seems unsure how far he can go in reassuring the former group that he's one of them without alienating the latter. And this is a shame, because Obama may represent the best hope for real reform in decades."

Likely not encouraging Rhee is Obama's pick to head up his transition efforts on education: Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, whom many in the education reform community eye warily, as too closely allied with teachers unions. 

Members of the pro-reform group Democrats for Education Reform  see Darling-Hamilton as someone who thinks more funding is the answer and say "Darling-Hammond's approach is dangerous. Without genuine reform, money pumped into a district like Newark is wasted."The liberal American Prospect suggests that Obama's naming Darling-Hammond, "a teacher quality expert who opposes merit pay and is more critical than supportive of NCLB, signals that Obama wishes to avoid a fight with the unions. He'll spend his political capital on energy and health care instead."

On a personal note, after they move to Washington DC, the Obamas are planning to send their daughters to the elite private school Sidwell Friends.

Mr. Obama seems to have some reformist impulses, but it will be interesting to see how they play out.

- jpt

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