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Congress, Obama Can Score a Big, Bipartisan Success: School Reform

Congress has a chance — a narrowing one, given the calendar — to prove it can do something important on a bipartisan basis: recommit the country to school reform.

[IMGCAP(1)]Among all of President Barack Obama’s priorities, this may have the longest-term significance, holding the key (along with reducing the nation’s debt) to whether America can compete in the 21st century.

It has been nearly 30 years since the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report launched the education reform movement and still, as Obama noted last month, American eighth-graders rank ninth in the world on international math tests and 11th in science.

A work force report by the Business Roundtable warned that the U.S. is the only major industrialized country with a younger generation that has a lower level of high school achievement than the older generation and is second to last in college completion.

And, as Obama pointed out Monday speaking to the America’s Promise Alliance, a third of U.S. children fail to graduate from high school — including half of all minority children — condemning most of them to a life of poverty and huge cost to society.

Congress and the Obama administration did get off to a fast start last year with $100 billion in education aid to the states under the two-year economic stimulus package — half of which will be handed out on a competitive basis that demands significant education reform.

But health care and other priorities have delayed action on a long-term commitment in the form of reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and a rewrite of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Obama wants to replace the NCLB’s goal of having all students “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 with that of having them “college and career ready” by 2020 and having their performance benchmarked against a common international standard agreed to by all states.

Schools and teachers would be judged on the basis of student test scores, rewarded for progress and “held accountable” for failure by having schools reorganized or closed.

The reauthorization process is just getting started. It got its first hearing Wednesday before the House Education and Labor Committee but without any bill to work on.

The will seems to exist for bipartisan action. The question is: Is there time to get it done this year?

If not — and, given a short election-year calendar and the prospect of total Senate gridlock, not is likely — reform would have to proceed by executive branch regulation and year-to-year appropriations.

Obama has inspired considerable optimism among school reformers that he’s willing to take political risks to push reform.

In the latest instance, at the America’s Promise event, he referred favorably to the firing of all teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island after only 7 percent of its 11th-graders passed the state’s math test and teachers refused to work 25 extra minutes a day to help them improve.

That drew an accusation from the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, that Obama was scoring “political points by scapegoating teachers.”

Of the two big teachers unions that are powers in the Democratic Party, the AFT has been formally supportive of Obama’s efforts to tie teacher pay and promotion to improvements in children’s test scores — the National Education Association has not — but her blast suggests that the unions will try to water down or kill reform.

Obama’s Education secretary, Arne Duncan, has said he wants to work with the unions on Obama’s “Race to the Top” for education, but in several states, the unions fought compliance with Duncan’s requirements that states lift limits on charter schools and repeal laws forbidding teacher assessments tied to student performance.

One of those who pronounces himself “optimistic” about Obama’s prospects is New York City’s reformist schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who has battled continuously with Weingarten.

Klein told me that, besides union efforts to influence Congress, Obama’s challenges would be to “really hang tough” in demanding reform before distributing stimulus money and ensure that states actually implement changes called for in the new legislation.

“I think the strategy is terrific,” he said, referring to the government’s using billions in new money to incentivize reform.

But he said, “conceptualizing change is easy, but actually changing large and complex organizations becomes a real challenge — for example, using data to inform instruction, doing annual evaluation of teachers and having a person mediate improvement or impose real consequences, terminating unqualified teachers.”

Pronouncing herself “cautiously optimistic” is President George W. Bush’s reformist Education secretary, Margaret Spellings.

She told me that Obama should keep NCLB’s 2014 goal of all-children-at-grade-level as a way station on the road to “college and career ready” by 2020.

“A lot of people have been grousing about the so-called rigorous targets of NCLB,” she said, “but now they want to set higher standards but on a longer deadline so they can escape accountability.”

She said that many states have repeatedly tried to loosen standards and soften consequences and the unions succeeded in turning NCLB into a “toxic brand,” despite improved test scores for minority children.

Spellings told me, “Politically, I think it’ll be very difficult to get [NCLB reauthorization] done this year,” partly because of the legislative calendar and partly because Obama is starting much later than Bush did in 2001.

“Obviously we should start it down the road,” she said.

One answer to this year’s calendar problem may be a proposal by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), another former Education secretary, to fix the most important pieces of existing law instead of rewriting it comprehensively.

Whichever way it happens, it ought to happen. Education reform may be the last bipartisan issue and could be the lasting legacy of this president and this Congress.

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