Hail to the educator in chief

Will President-elect Obama bring hope and change for the nation's poor and minority schoolchildren?

November 19, 2008|By Kalman R. Hettleman

I rang doorbells and made phone calls for Barack Obama in the general and primary elections. I believe he will offer bold change in foreign and domestic policy and transform the mean spirit of American politics. But I'm less sure that he can redeem the dream of equal educational opportunity for poor schoolchildren - at least, not any time soon.

One obvious reason is other, higher national priorities. Less obvious but more inhibiting, however, is the absence of a policy or political mandate for school reform. Educators and politicians alike are divided on what it will take to close the achievement gap that separates low-income children of color from the American mainstream.

Because of this uncertainty, despite the many sharp differences between them, Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain said and differed little on school policy. Both gave vague support to the No Child Left Behind Act. Beyond that, Mr. McCain recited the conservative mantra about charter schools and vouchers as the saviors of public education, while Mr. Obama mainly toed the liberal line on the need for more federal funds.

Otherwise, the president-elect walked a tightrope, swaying to and fro over controversial measures such as merit pay for teachers, tougher discipline of unsatisfactory teachers, and vouchers. He avoided altogether a glaring defect in NCLB: Instead of prescribing one set of national standards and tests, it allows each state to set its own. This has set off a "race to the bottom" as states have dumbed down standards and tests to avoid penalties under NCLB.

His indecision reflects the ideological "education wars." Liberals and conservatives battle. Worse, liberal Democrats are at war with themselves. One camp, mostly so-called education progressives, wants to annihilate NCLB. They are spearheaded by the powerful national teachers unions. These liberals, ironically, are aligned with Republicans in their opposition to federal intrusion on local control of public schools. On the other side are liberals who see local control as an anachronism that protects the status quo. They want to "mend, not end" NCLB and are willing to challenge the teachers unions and other pillars of the education establishment, including teacher colleges and state and local education departments. These liberals include the leading Democratic congressional heavyweights on education, and so reauthorization of NCLB is now a virtual certainty.

But that's not nearly good enough. NCLB will get a new name but not a new structure. States will remain free to go soft on standards, tests and sanctions. Equally important, states as a whole will continue to make a mockery of the civil right of all children to adequate funding to enable them to meet high standards. At best, given the economic crisis, Mr. Obama will be able to only slightly increase funding.

What will be missing is what I call a "new education federalism." States have never delivered on the rights of minorities and poor people, and the federal government has had to step in. That must now happen to fulfill the right to equal educational opportunity.

The federal government must become the guarantor of high standards and adequate funding. It must also elevate education research and development so that the money is spent cost-effectively. The feds would spell out only what students are entitled to; states and local school systems would still dictate how the money is spent and the children are taught.

Such a new education federalism is the truly audacious hope for America's poor schoolchildren. And Mr. Obama could become the nation's educator in chief and pull it off. But it would take political capital that realistically will not be available in the immediate future.

So here's my forecast for the climate of national education policy: mild progress over the next two years, including reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and drops of additional federal funds. Then bigger changes will stir. President Obama will devise a "third way" that links much larger increases in federal funds to state adoption of national standards and tests and other reforms.

It may take a second term, but a full federal guarantee of adequate funding is within the realm of possibility. That's the hope - and that's the imperative for our country's future.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His e-mail is

khettleman@comcast.net.

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