Obama's Education Reform Agenda Under Fire

The president's ambitious education agenda is in peril, as his allies face firing at the polls in November. Dana Goldstein on the shaky state of school reform.

President Barack Obama speaks to third and fourth graders at Viers Mill Elementary School Oct. 19, 2009 in Silver Spring, MD. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

When Barack Obama was first elected president, his education agenda—deploying federal money to turn around failing schools, hold teachers accountable for student test scores, and open more charter schools—earned glowing reviews from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

At the Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said, “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished Cabinet appointments. From my view of it all, I think you're best.”

But those were more innocent times. With partisanship at record levels in the run-up to the midterm elections, Obama’s education-reform agenda—once the calling card for his commitment to bipartisan good governance—is under threat from both the left and right.

Congressional Republicans, including those, like Alexander, who once praised Obama's education policies, are now calling for a return to 2008 levels of federal spending, which would stop the White House from funding additional Pell Grant student loans and cancel plans for another round of Race to the Top, Obama's signature education-reform grant competition.

Across the country, politicians who strongly support Obama’s education-reform agenda are at risk of being unseated by those who oppose it, or—like incoming Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray—are more ambivalent.

Obama ally Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his D.C. reelection bid in part because of voter dissatisfaction with his hard-charging schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who announced her resignation Wednesday.

Though Rhee’s take-no-prisoners style was a far cry from Obama’s conciliatory tone, her policies on school closings, teacher dismissals, and performance pay closely mirrored the administration’s, and won D.C. $75 million in federal Race to the Top funding.

Across the country, politicians who strongly support Obama’s education reform agenda are at risk of being unseated by those who oppose it.

Gray has been vague about his specific education-reform plans, and did not respond to a request for comment. Janet Bass, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Gray, says “implementation of Race to the Top is key now, and must be done collaboratively with teachers, school administratiors, and others.”

In Colorado, long considered ground zero for bipartisan education reform, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett, the celebrated former superintendent of Denver’s public schools, is trailing his Republican Tea Party opponent Ken Buck, who—like fellow Tea Party Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Rand Paul— has said the federal government should stay out of local education policy.

Douglas E. Schoen: Dems’ New Misfire on Health CareIn Denver, Bennett’s handpicked successor as superintendent, Thomas Boasberg, has come under fire from parents’ groups for pursuing an Obama-inspired agenda of school closings and teacher dismissals in poor neighborhoods.

Also at risk is Colorado’s commitment to reforming the teaching profession. Last May, in anticipation of Obama’s Race to the Top grant competition, the state legislature passed one of the most aggressive teacher-reform laws in the country, declaring that student test scores would count for 50 percent of teacher evaluation ratings, and reforming the way teachers are granted tenure and awarded salary increases.

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Though a Colorado local of the American Federation of Teachers supports the law, the Colorado Education Association, affiliated with the National Education Association teachers union, has targeted legislators—especially Democrats—who voted for the bill.

Advocates are racing to protect the politicians who’ve supported the Obama reform agenda.

“We’ve been raising money for candidates in Colorado who supported SB 191,” the teacher-evaluation bill, said Charles Barone, federal policy director at Democrats for Education Reform. “We had an event for the sponsors of the bill in D.C.”

Stand for Children Colorado, an education-reform advocacy group, will spend between $150,000 and $300,000 on the campaigns of 18 Democratic and Republican supporters of SB 191 who have been targeted by the Colorado Education Association.

“Regardless of Race to the Top, I think the election would still be difficult and challenging,” said Lindsay Neil, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado. “Winning Race to the Top wouldn’t have changed the positions of the organizations who opposed reform.”

Colorado is not the only state that passed controversial education legislation in part to attract Race to the Top funding, only to be denied the extra federal dollars. Advocates also worry about the sustainability of new education-reform laws in Illinois, Michigan, and Louisiana, none of which won the competition.

“I think in states that didn’t win, the likelihood of some of this stuff getting eroded is real,” said Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton administration education official and cofounder of the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners. “I’m not optimistic about [the staying power of] some of these changes.”

Another potential, longer-term pitfall for Obama is whether the education policy levers favored by his administration will lead to lasting gains in student achievement, better teaching, and higher high school and college graduation rates. Research on the outcomes of teacher merit pay programs and charter school expansion, for example, remains mixed.

“The public is not going to care about structural reforms” such as replacing principals or changing teacher-evaluation policies, said Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group and a former Michelle Rhee staffer in the D.C. public schools. “I would love to see the conversation shift away from those input policies to what we expect to happen as a result of this.”

The Obama administration should set timelines for states and school districts to improve student performance, and should withhold competitive grant funding from those who don’t, Cohen said—regardless of the political fallout.

“I don’t think folks quite understand how troubled the most troubled, lowest performing schools are,” he continued. “The worst thing would be to let them continue failing. Folks need to be very blunt and take the Band-Aid off. Unless people understand just how underperforming these schools really are, we won’t have the outrage we really need.”

Dana Goldstein is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University, and a former associate editor at The Daily Beast. Her writing on politics, women's issues, and education has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, The New Republic, BusinessWeek, and Slate. You can follow her work at www.danagoldstein.net.