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Obama and Education Reform

by  David A. Lehrer

October 23, 2009 | 7:37 pm

The first nine months of the Obama administration have been intriguing; a model of what happens when a politician tries to hew to a fairly moderate line in his policies. He gets battered from the right for his “socialism” and he gets battered from the left for his “failure to do what has to be done and damn the compromises.”

Whether the issue is healthcare reform or Wall Street bailouts, he just can seem to quiet the critics. He is neither moderate enough for the right nor radical enough for the left. I can’t tell you many dinners I have had with friends (mainly on the left of the political spectrum) who express exasperation that Obama hasn’t yet transformed the world to their liking. The dialogue usually ends with our guests uttering an exasperated “he’s really no different than Bush.”

I understand the Republicans’ antipathy, that’s politics. With regard to the liberal critics, I am reminded of Lyndon Johnson’s witty quip regarding the difference between liberals and cannibals, “cannibals don’t eat their friends.”

If there was an issue that is the litmus test of whether Obama is serious about “change you can believe in” education is that issue. The pressures for inertia are enormous and come largely from a traditional Democratic constituency, teachers’ unions (see our blogs of July 28 and 31). If he is willing to buck those unions in order to effect meaningful change, than we all ought to take notice and acknowledge the political courage it demonstrates.

Today’s insightful New York Timescolumn by David Brooks offers evidence that Obama is making a meaningful difference.  Brooks focuses on the Department of Education’s program for change, Race to the Top——$4.3 billion offered to schools districts around the country as a lever for doing what countless studies have shown works.

As Brooks writes, “Their (the Obama Administration) ideas were good, and their speeches were beautiful. But that was never the problem. The real challenge was going to be standing up to the teachers’ unions and the other groups that have undermined nearly every other reform effort.”

Brooks concludes that the news is “very good.” People concerned about education—from former Governor Jeb Bush to Bill Gates—-have been impressed by “how gritty and effective the Obama administration has been in holding the line and inciting real education reform.” Jeb Bush’s support, Brooks’ reports, is echoed by leaders as diverse as Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton.

States that don’t change their laws to comply with the new federal mandates won’t get federal funds (even dysfunctional California is changing its laws to gain access to the money); more charter schools are being approved; some unions are now agreeing to the “revolutionary” notion that teachers’ pay be related to how they perform.

We aren’t there yet and that are lots of political battles ahead that will offer ample opportunities to waffle and equivocate, but as Brooks writes about the president, so far “he has not wavered.”

I, for one, am getting tired of hearing about “Main Street versus Wall Street,” the inflated salaries of investment bankers, and whether the “public option” is the critical element in health care reform. I will not tire, however, in hearing about what may be the single most important domestic issue we face—-education reform. The question of whether we will have an educated populous that has access to a decent public education, no matter their economic status or background, is critical to America’s future—we seem finally to be heading in the right direction.

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