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Barone: Stars Align for Major Education Reforms

Education reform is breaking out from coast to coast. Rarely have the stars been so well-aligned for change. The policy challenges and the potential solutions could not be clearer. The political climate for change has never been more favorable, as people across the ideological spectrum seek reform. And the advocacy infrastructure, which is stronger than ever before, is growing stronger and more successful every day.

Back-to-school time typically means an onslaught of education reporting. But last month saw arguably more national media attention paid not just to education but to education reform than in any September in recent memory: the official premiere of the eye-opening film “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” the weeklong NBC News series “Education Nation,” a Time magazine cover story on “great schools” and “great teachers,” and two Oprah specials, the second of which featured Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of a $100 million donation to Newark Public Schools.

This heightened national awareness follows a year and a half of ground-breaking action in states and districts across the country. Fueled by President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and stepped-up advocacy efforts at the state and local level, dozens of states passed laws and implemented new policies designed to raise standards, develop better tests, improve teaching and turn around the lowest-performing schools. Hundreds of local collaborative efforts were launched around smaller initiatives, such as the Investing in Innovation fund.

New laws were passed and new policies implemented in at least 30 states that link teacher evaluation to student achievement, expand high-quality alternative teacher certification programs, provide more autonomy for superintendents and principals, and increase parental public school choice options through charter and magnet schools.

Two notable examples: a landmark contract for D.C. teachers that allows them to forgo tenure protections in exchange for performance-based pay and advancement, and a new teacher evaluation and tenure reform law in Colorado seen as the most ambitious in the nation, which was the result of a strong advocacy effort by an alliance of child welfare, civil rights, education reform and business groups, as well as the Colorado branch of the American Federation of Teachers.

The stars are aligned for what could be even bigger changes over the next few years that would fix a broken education system top to bottom, from overhauling teacher training to boosting rates of high school graduation and college completion. But whether the 112th Congress will help, hinder or play any role in that process is anybody’s guess.

No matter what happens Nov. 2, education reform from Washington that is in line with the national zeitgeist for big changes in K-12 education will face serious challenges inside the Beltway.

Democrats are under pressure from the usual diffuse but single-minded and powerful alliance of education groups that cling to status quo practices and steadfastly resist change. Republicans are surfing a wave of not only anti-Washington but generally anti-government sentiment that has swept many parts of the country, and includes quixotic (just ask former Speaker Newt Gingrich) calls for such things as eliminating the Department of Education.

If these two wings of each party unite and prevail, it’s quite possible that, at best, federal policy will do nothing to invest in and support state and local education reform efforts. At worst, such an alliance could empower those who have brought us the education system we have today and want little, if anything, in the way of real change; that is, change that empowers parents and truly challenges educators and administrators at a level commensurate with the enormous responsibility entrusted to them for shaping children’s futures.

There are also powerful forces in both parties that support the revolution in education reform that we are seeing in states and school districts, many of which have been facilitated by federal initiatives. The president is leading the Democratic Party on education reform in a way some would have considered unimaginable just a few years ago but in fact builds on initiatives — accountability systems and charter schools to name just two — that Bill Clinton began laying the groundwork for 20 years ago first as governor of Arkansas, then as president.

Many Republicans have also taken a pragmatic approach to the role of the federal government in education. The most obvious example is President George W. Bush, whose No Child Left Behind polls about a 40 percent favorability rating overall but has individual elements like annual testing and achievement gap-closing that garner high levels of support within both parties as well as among independents, is the most obvious. But there are many other Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), who was Bush’s closest Republican ally on NCLB, and conservative Senators such as Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Richard Burr (N.C.).

Many current and former Republican governors, including Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal, have also led the way on reform. They have also supported Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, even though their Republican colleagues in Washington have been in obstructionist mode the past two years and generally did not support the plan.

These two wings of each party disagree on many things. But if they can come together and tackle these tough issues, based not on ideology or party but on what best serves the nation’s children and the country’s economic future, we have a good chance of getting the reform needed to fix a system that, it is widely agreed, is broken. They can deliver sound federal education policies that do not usurp the role of state and local governments but do target funds to the areas of greatest need and tie new education investments to acceptance of the new policies.

History, the nation and 20 years of momentum are on their side.

Charles Barone is director of federal policy at Democrats for Education Reform.