Even as official Washington came together to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and Barack Obama's inauguration, fault lines were deepening in an intra-Democratic Party policy debate that the incoming president hopes to avoid — but may not be able to.
On Monday at Cardozo High School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of D.C., the Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein hosted a bipartisan group of civil rights leaders and educators focused on addressing the achievement gap, in part through advancing policies opposed by teachers' unions, including test score based performance pay and private school voucher programs. Other speakers included incoming secretary of education Arne Duncan; Sen. John McCain; outgoing education secretary Margaret Spellings; Newark mayor Cory Booker; New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg; former
speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty; and controversial D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.
In front of an audience of enthusiastic African American families and District community activists, speaker after speaker came to the podium and attacked the "status quo" in Democratic education policy. To the trained ear, these were thinly veiled fighting words addressed toward the leadership of urban teachers' unions. "As a Democrat, there are forces in our party that hold us back from doing the right thing for children," said Cory Booker, who has been targeted by Newark's teachers' union because of his support for a voucher program. "So I am no longer concerned with right or left. I just want to move forward."
But proving that fiery rhetoric about education reform might be more popular with parents than actual change in their children's classrooms, local schools leader Michelle Rhee — the embodiment of this movement — was tepidly received. When Rhee said, "There are a lot of people who benefit from our system being dysfunctional," a few voices raised in the crowd, booing. "That's not true!" a woman shouted. But Rhee continued, referring obliquely to her long-running contract dispute with the Washington Teachers' Union over merit pay and tenure. "People who keep their jobs. People who keep their contract."
cross-posted at TAPPED