As the new Congress settles in after the so-called wave election sent a strong message to Washington, it remains to be seen just what the message was. For public education it seems even more complex and paradoxical. The last of the stimulus monies are being spent and the much talked about day of reckoning – the inevitable cliff – is here. If there is a single area of education reform that has been least discussed, it has got to be school finance. So now we are slowly clawing our way out of the deepest recession of our lifetimes and things are uncertain in our hometowns.
Could things possibly get worse?
The Obama administration has managed through the powerful influence of a handful of policymakers and philanthropists to extort states to make changes as a price of admission to the controversial Race to the Top competition. These included signing on to the Common Standards effort, facilitating the unfettered growth of charter schools, and allowing for the possibility of including student test standardized test results in evaluating teacher performance. In the end, even through two rounds of competition few states received funding for their efforts.
Two years into his first term, having faced down the daunting economic situation and faced with new balance of power in the Congress, ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has yet to be reauthorized. Pundits are all over the ball bark in speculating as to the prospects for reauthorization. I tend to side with the skeptics. Secretary Duncan in a recent OpEd piece (Washington Post Jan 3) expressed optimism and apparently the administration sees ESEA as a fertile prospect for bipartisan cooperation.
Secretary Duncan cites the dissatisfaction with the “one size fits all” nature of NCLB and the “teaching to the test phenomenon” and makes note of the effort to construct a new and improved testing regimen to which 44 states have given an initial nod of approval. He acknowledges that the teacher quality approach taken by NCLB is deeply flawed and applauds efforts to institute new and more sophisticated methods of teacher evaluation based on multiple measures of effectiveness. The fundamental question remains as to what the appropriate role should be for the federal government in public education. Has the escalating intrusion of the federal government over the last two decades netted any significant transformative effect educational achievement? Will the new Republican majority in the House bolstered by an ambitious core of less-government, less-spending Tea Party realize that they are the party of local control? And finally, after the success of the Obama administration in the lame duck session, will there be a willingness to hand over yet another victory to the president in education.
There will be much to talk about in the weeks and months ahead.