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The Democrats’ Education Divide
What side is Barack Obama on?
12 September 2008

While party unity was a key theme of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, an important divide has emerged on education between teachers’ unions on one side, and a new cadre of urban education leaders on the other. The upstarts represent a significant challenge to the unions’ stubborn opposition to education reform as well as their stranglehold on the Democratic Party.

The split was evident at the “Ed Challenge for Change” forum, which attracted an overflowing crowd in Denver during convention week. Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, began the discussion by noting that “the Democratic Party used to be a party about progress, and our hope on the education issue is that we will return to that day when we are the ones standing up for the little guy.” Williams went on to introduce a roster of speakers whom he identified as “the misfits of the Democratic Party.” They included Newark mayor Cory Booker; Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty and schools chancellor Michelle Rhee; New York schools chancellor Joel Klein; Denver schools superintendent Michael Bennet; and former Colorado governor Roy Romer.

Klein discussed his efforts to support charter schools and improve teacher accountability in New York, as well as the need for national education standards. Bennet spoke about Denver’s unique contract offering bonuses to teachers whose students improve in the classroom. Fenty and Rhee described the revolutionary changes they’re bringing to schools in D.C., including “the grand bargain” they hope to strike with teachers: greater accountability, including an end to tenure, in exchange for a nearly 100-percent increase in salaries.

Particularly outspoken was Newark’s Cory Booker, who noted how “vicious” teachers’ unions can be in their efforts to stymie reform: “Ten years ago, when I started talking about school choice, I was tarred and feathered,” Booker noted. “I literally was brought into a room by a [teachers’] union [representative] . . . and threatened that I would never win in office if I kept talking about school choice, if I kept talking about charter schools . . . there are billboards all over my city paid for by the teachers’ unions attacking me and I don’t even have mayoral control yet. I just tell the truth about what’s going on.” Booker implored Democratic office holders to “have the political will to stand up against these phenomenally powerful interests” and suggested that “when I started talking about this, I had so many Democratic establishment folks turn their backs on me, and it was Republicans in America that were willing to donate to my campaign in Newark, New Jersey. So we have to understand as Democrats that we have been wrong on education; it’s time to get right.”

Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter, who moderated one of the forum’s panels, called the event a “landmark in the history of the Democratic Party” and noted that “four years ago there would have been three or four people here; now you’re part of a movement.” You wouldn’t know it from the speeches given by the teachers’ unions’ representatives inside the convention hall, however. Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers—who told an Education Week reporter that she was “really pissed” about the forum—called vaguely for more money and an end to high-stakes testing, instituted as part of No Child Left Behind to measure school progress.

With the presidential campaign now in full swing, which side of the great Democratic education divide does the party’s presidential nominee stand on? Does Barack Obama support the teachers’ unions or the education reformers? As with so many of Obama’s policy stances, the answer is not altogether clear.

Obama has made his share of reformist-sounding statements, and the teachers’ unions have responded by only offering him tepid support. Both the AFT and the NEA endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. When the NEA finally did endorse Obama at their annual meeting this July, he was greeted with stunned silence when he expressed his support for charter schools; when he somewhat vaguely reiterated his longstanding support for merit pay for teachers, he was roundly booed.

Another sign that Obama is in the reform camp is the education plank that his team inserted into the Democratic Party platform which echoes his support for some form of merit pay: “We’ll reward effective teachers who teach in underserved areas, take on added responsibilities like mentoring new teachers, or consistently excel in the classroom.” The platform also pledges to “reform the schools of education that produce most of our teachers; promote public charter schools that are accountable; and streamline the certification process for those with valuable skills who want to shift careers and teach.”

Earlier this week, however, Obama delivered an education policy speech at a Dayton, Ohio high school that, while offering many reform-oriented policy suggestions, also voiced a number of anti-reform bromides. Obama spent much of the speech decrying “teaching to the test”—a slap at high-stakes testing and the emphasis on results under NCLB. Even more worrisome was Obama’s statement that he envisioned a future in which “teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how to use it”—a favorite talking point of anti-reform education professors who believe that imparting knowledge is not a teacher’s primary job. He also continued to water down his stance on merit pay by suggesting that we “find ways to increase teachers’ pay that are developed with teachers, and not imposed on them.” Translation: big increase in pay, tiny increase in accountability.

As Cory Booker suggested at the Ed Challenge for Change forum, Obama could prove that he is in the reform camp by endorsing the Education Equity Project’s Statement of Principles—as John McCain, among political leaders of both parties, has already done. Co-chaired by Klein and (believe it or not) the Reverend Al Sharpton, the Education Equity Project is a nonpartisan group of elected officials, civil rights leaders, and education reformers who have banded together to “take on conventional wisdom and the entrenched impediments to real reform, focusing on teacher quality and pay; accountability for results; and maximizing parents’ options.”

It’s time for Obama, whose entire presidential campaign is premised on the theme of change, to join the burgeoning education reform movement wholeheartedly—and stop trying to have it both ways. Signing the Education Equity Project’s Statement of Principles would send a clear signal that he is serious about working for real change in American education.

Charles Sahm is a program officer at the Manhattan Institute.

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