Will Education Be a Bipartisan Issue in 2011?

According to Ron Brownstein, who interviewed the president last week, Obama is hoping education will emerge as a compromise issue between Democrats and the new House Republican leadership. 

Is that hope realistic? There are a few factors to consider.

First, in their zeal to cut the budget, Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell have said they oppose any additional funding of Obama's signature education reform program, the Race to the Top grant competition, in which states are rewarded for instituting policies such as teacher performance pay, opening new charter schools, and improving professional development for teachers and principals.

Second, Rand Paul and other winning Tea Partiers have sworn to return control of schools to local communities, a promise that stands in opposition to everything the bipartisan standards and accountability movement is about. Tea Partiers frequently vow to shut down the Department of Education.

Once the Tea Partiers are seated in Congress, though, longtime members will likely seek to temper their fire and brimstone. Republicans know education can be a winning issue with constituents, the majority of whom support spending on their own children's schools. John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, has a longtime interest in federal education policy, dating back to his role ushering President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act through Congress in 2001, as then-Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats who worked with Boehner at the time say he developed a deep commitment to the legislation, which the Obama adminstration hopes to tweak, rename, and reauthorize in 2011. 

"Boehner was fairly non-ideological about education," recalled Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton administration education official and cofounder of the consulting firm Bellweather Education Partners. "At first, he was just going to carry [President Bush's] water. As the process went on, he became involved and became kind of invested in it. He got more engaged around some of the data and just how bad things are for low-income kids."

"It was an interesting evolution to watch," Rotherham continued. "Boehner and [Democratic ranking member George] Miller worked really well together. I have no idea what's happened to Boehner over the last couple of years. Does he still think about education? Does he still care about it?"

As of 2007, the last time Congress (unsuccessfully) attempted to reauthorize NCLB, Boehner was certainly still involved. He defined the GOP position on how to update the bill, sponsoring amendments that would have added funding streams for teacher merit pay and a federal private school voucher program. 

The Obama administration made teacher merit pay a cornerstone of Race to the Top, so would certainly work with Republicans on that issue when it comes to NCLB. On vouchers, Obama did cancel the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which was popular with conservative education reformers. In doing so, he pointed to years of research showing that students who use such vouchers tend to end up in low-performing parochial schools, and do not typically show academic gains greater than their traditional public school peers.

Crucially, Boehner is also on the record opposing efforts to create a national curriculum, national  standardized testing system, or national database of student achievement stats. These are all policies the Obama administration supports through its encouragement of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, in which many states are working together to enact shared standards in English and math and create tests to go with them.

As you can see, there are plenty of obstacles that could prevent education from becoming a bipartisan issue in 2011. But if there is cooperation, it will likely be around issues of teacher accountability and school choice, with President Obama potentially using private school vouchers as a bargaining chip in order to earn some Republican buy-in on tougher curriculum standards or spending on public charter schools.

2 thoughts on “Will Education Be a Bipartisan Issue in 2011?

  1. Core 4 All

    Bipartisanship aside, it is the responsibility of the local school district to assure that students are learning. Through a systematic approach of teacher-teams using the Common Core State Standards as the cornerstone of curriculum, we can improve student achievement.

  2. W.A.M.

    There does seem to be a rather remarkable bipartisan alliance in support of accountability (and in opposition to teacher unions). Speaking on News Hour before the election, Haley Barbour cited education reform as an area of possible consensus. However, as EPI’s paper elucidates, basing job security or salary on student achievement as measured by test scores is problematic.


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