On Education, Obama Avoids Fight with the Unions

With Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services, it's safe to assume that some of the other policy working group leaders are also on the short lists –potentially, very short lists — for cabinet positions. As Ezra writes, the news of Daschle at HHS, with a co-appointment to the White House as health policy adviser, is hugely encouraging to proponents of radical reform.

In comparison, the choice of Linda Darling-Hammond to lead the education working group is quite conservative. Not ideologically conservative, but rather, conservative in terms of what it says about Obama's plans for education. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform – which favor charter schools and merit pay — have been hoping for Obama to embrace their agenda. And indeed, early in the primaries, Obama was booed at a teachers' union event for saying he supported merit pay. But since he clinched the nomination, Obama's statements on education have been more circumspect. The appointment of Darling-Hammond, a teacher quality expert who opposes merit pay and is more critical than supportive of NCLB, signals that Obama wishes to avoid a fight with the unions. He'll spend his political capital on energy and health care instead.

All that said, Darling-Hammond, currently a Stanford professor, does have impressive qualifications and some great ideas. Known as a onetime harsh critic of Teach for America, she is absolutely correct to push for teacher recruitment reforms that professionalize the job and seek candidates ready to spend long careers in schools. She refers to education as a "civil right" and said on the campaign trail that the Obama team is committed to equalizing resources between poor and affluent schools. There may be education fights down the road in the Obama administration, but it's reductive to believe the only fight worth having is on merit pay, which pits certain progressive interest groups against one another. Darling-Hammond is unlikely to pick that particular fight — but when it comes to school funding and other crucial issues, she'll be a powerful advocate on behalf of poor children.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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