The New Jersey state senate has unanimously passed a bill that empowers public schools to remove ineffective teachers and requires that teachers be evaluated, at least in part, on classroom performance. The bill is expected to clear the state assembly and to be signed by Governor Chris Christie. New Jersey’s hard-won reform is only the most recent example of the growing movement toward a more sensible education system. Connecticut recently passed a similar tenure-reform bill, joining states like Florida, Colorado, and Tennessee. Other states, including New York, have passed laws requiring that teacher evaluations incorporate classroom performance. For years, powerful groups heavily invested in the status quo—above all, the teachers’ unions—blocked commonsense teacher-quality reforms. The reforms of the last few years have weakened their once-suffocating grip over education policy. It will take a continued bipartisan effort to maintain this momentum.
Today’s education-reform movement gains its force from hard empirical evidence. Two decades of research demonstrated that credentials and time served—the two factors that determine a teacher’s salary—were unrelated to a teacher’s classroom effectiveness. Data also revealed that the quality of public school teachers varies widely, contradicting the positive performance ratings almost universally awarded to teachers under today’s system.
This strong research foundation helped spawn the bipartisan political movement that has been the driving force behind the new policies. We shouldn’t forget that Republicans began the modern education reform movement and continue to fight for its implementation. But new policies are being adopted more rapidly across the nation because some powerful Democrats have finally backed off their once-unquestioned support for the union party line. New Jersey’s policy, for instance, was sponsored by Democratic state senator Teresa Ruiz and actively supported by several other Democrats; Connecticut’s recent reform was pushed for and signed by Democratic governor Dan Malloy; New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, has backed the Empire State’s reform efforts. And President Obama adopted education reform early in his political career.
Once-divisive educational reforms thus appear increasingly like conventional wisdom. Perhaps the most striking feature of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s education platform, announced a few weeks ago, is how unremarkable it is. Each of Romney’s proposed policies—stronger accountability, teacher-quality reform, increased school choice—deserves support. But it’s unlikely that these positions will win many additional votes for the Republican challenger, because President Obama endorses them all, and—despite Romney’s claims to the contrary—has actively pushed similar policies, especially through his Race to the Top grant competition. Where the candidates disagree on an education issue—such as support for the D.C. voucher program—Romney’s is the superior position. But the differences are more in degree than in kind.
President Obama’s embrace of education reform, and that of some other Democrats, appears to be sincere. It might be even more remarkable if, as Romney has suggested, the support was politically motivated. That would mean that the leader of the Democratic Party thinks that reforming America’s public schools through choice, accountability, and teacher-quality policies—all opposed vigorously by the teachers’ unions—is so popular with voters that he can’t afford to reject these policies.
That education reform would become a default position, essentially shared by both parties, would have been viewed as utopian fantasy less than a decade ago. The challenge now is to keep education reform at the forefront of the political discussion, while maintaining its bipartisan appeal. That will take political courage from both sides, particularly during an election season.