Education Reform and the Elections

Posted: Nov 14, 2006 3:50 PM
Education Reform and the Elections

To what extent, and in what manner, did the 2006 mid - term elections affect education policy and practice in this country? The answer to that question lies in part with the answer to another question, namely, is education policy still largely local or has it been nationalized?

The Answer: All of the Above.

With all the press given to "No Child Left Behind," we might think that all the responsibility for reform rests in Washington. On the other hand, the proliferation of charter schools and the few instances of voucher programs remind us that education politics is local.

We first must ask whether Democrats will move to abolish Bush's showcase education act. The Answer: Why should they? They seem to have gotten everything they wanted on January 2, 2002 when Senator Kennedy looked in triumph over George Bush's shoulder as the president signed the bill into law. Some might even venture to say that it is precisely because of programs like NCLB that the Republicans have lost electoral ground.

In the interest of supporting a Republican president, I wonder if too many conservatives have been willing to sacrifice principle for politics in their support for NCLB. Some have indeed supported the legislation, heralding it as an important first step toward accountability and choice in American public education.

A few, though, might find disturbing comments by an otherwise insightful education leader like Chester Finn, who, in the context of offering advice on improving NCLB writes, in an open letter to the presumptive new leader of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, George Miller, "It's naïve to expect state and local education agencies to reform themselves - - or one another, or the schools they allowed to falter."

Well, maybe it is true that parents, teachers and local officials cannot see their way clear to improving their own schools. If so, it may also be time to declare the tradition of the reserve powers of the states bankrupt. (Maybe if Washington and NEA would get off their backs, they might prove remarkably capable of improving their children's education.)

But might it not be even more naive to expect that a top down, intrusive and bureaucratically complex program like NCLB will really improve education in the diverse conditions one finds traveling from Georgia to Maine to Alaska and then out to Hawaii?

The problem I have is in finding a single teacher who has something good to say about NCLB. Honestly, I would love to hear from someone who can disprove my impressions. Please write. I'd like to hear something positive. I'm tired of all the whining.

Invariably the comments I hear are from those who must contend with the everyday impact of NCLB. They complain, though gritted teeth, about its disruptive consequences in their classroom. Many of those consequences are undoubtedly inadvertent, but perverse nonetheless.

Like the teacher I spoke with whose Georgia classroom has been "improved" by the unexpected NCLB requirement that her teacher's aide be removed. Something about class size and teacher to student ratio.

She teaches the severely emotionally disturbed by whom, over the course of the years, she has been poisoned, knocked unconscious and threatened with her life. Now she faces them alone. Some nameless faceless bureaucrat in the Department of Education in Washington could surely explain how this could happen — but, well, there are just so many hours in the day and so many hundreds of schools districts in the country.

Success stories from those who have really benefited from the choice provisions of NCLB — in which parents can demand movement from a "failing" public school to another not - so - failing public school — seem hard to find. More frequent are the reports of the maddening bureaucratic resistance with which parents must contend in their effort to cash in on a Washington program that their state department of education never supported in the first place, and which their local school superintendents studiously try to defeat through their passive - aggressive tactics.

So, what will the Democrats do with NCLB? One would hope that a new found Democratic pragmatism would prevail and that they will strengthen the choice provision to extend to options for movement to private schools and that the act might give states and localities more choice in its interpretation. (One can also hope to win the lottery.)

Not if the National Education Association has its way. And it will have its way, given that Congressman George Miller and Senator Edward Kennedy, who helped write NCLB, will likely head up their respective education committees. The monolithic interest group has already marked out its demands for "improving" NCLB and they include forgetting any notion of "competition" among schools, whether public or private. The NEA has also called for more flexibility in implementation, but don't expect them to argue for genuine local control.

NCLB, then, it seems, violates several principles traditionally entrusted to Republicans: 1) limited government, 2) federalism; and 3) common sense. Aside from those quibbles, it's darn good law.

The impact of the elections on the state and local level is more complex in that governors, legislatures, school superintendents, boards of education and state supreme courts all have, in varying ways and at diverse times, critical roles to play in education practice and reform.

If anyone doubts the power of state supreme courts in education, he need look no further than the decision Bush v. Holmes in which, on January 15, 2006, the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a seven year old voucher program involving over 700 students a year. Most of the students were underprivileged, but don’t let that fool you: Five of the seven members of the court helpfully reasoned that the Opportunity Scholarship Program violated the right of Florida students to an "equal education."

This is by no means the first time state supreme courts have flexed their muscles and demanded to be noticed, nor will it be the last. Charter schools are also endangered and once again, a state supreme court is the aggressor. On the first day of November 2006, by only a single vote, over 87,000 children escaped the charge of the Ohio Supreme Court, which barely ruled that public charter schools are constitutional.

Unfortunately, the public generally has less sensitivity to the composition of low profile state courts and, in some cases, far less influence on their membership than even on the Supreme Court. In some states justices are appointed, in others they are elected. Their elections, though, may be non - partisan, ironically rendering it even more difficult for some voters to make informed choices. In my state, their names appear on the ballot right after all the choices for Public Service Commissioners.

State school superintendents and their corresponding boards have a say in education reform, but they will rarely venture far without gubernatorial support. But now with over half of the governors' mansions soon to be occupied by Democrats, the chance of meaningful reform at the state level is not promising. It's not that there are no sensible Democrats — the problem is that their party is currently in the thrall of forces that pull it away from the kind of independent and imaginative thinking necessary to improve education in systematic ways.

Though it was curiously ignored in the 2006 races for the Senate, Bush may have the chance to appoint another Supreme Court Justice to replace the 86 year old John Paul Stevens. If so, Stevens' replacement could have a say if there is to be a challenge to the court's 2002 decision Zelman v Simons - Harris in which the court, in a split decision, approved Cleveland's successful voucher program. A new Democratic governor now presides over Ohio who just happened to campaign against vouchers.

If the Zelman decision — or its principles — should be reintroduced and overturned, the cause of vouchers in education may be lost for at least a generation.

Sorry there's not better news.