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Education Provides Political Spin of the Day

On Wednesday, exactly a year after he won the White House and a day after the Democrats lost high-profile gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, Obama will be in Madison, Wisconsin to promote his education agenda. It’s a smart move. The media spent Tuesday speculating about whether the governors’ races were referendums on Obama’s presidency and whether he’s delivered on the change he promised a year ago. It’s easy to point to health care or climate policy, currently mired in congressional partisan wrangling, as areas where change-making isn’t going so smoothly. Not so with education.

It’s not the most high-profile policy of his administration, but the competitive $4.35-billion Race to the Top (RTTT) fund, which Obama will be highlighting in Wisconsin, is already producing significant education reforms. Namely, to qualify for the money, which will be doled out next year, some states and school districts have agreed to lift charter school caps and tie teacher evaluations to student achievement. And RTTT has won ringing endorsements from some major education reformers. (At a conference I attended Tuesday, former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, called it, “The biggest and best thing that’s ever happened in America.”)

But, because RTTT is part of the stimulus package, its strings controlled by the Department of Education, much of the president’s education agenda has yet to face the usual legislative channels and partisan push-and-pull in Congress. That will happen next year, when No Child Left Behind finally comes up for reauthorization. While Obama’s brand of education reform enjoys some bipartisan support, there will inevitably be conflicts between the parties, not to mention battles with teachers’ unions and other stakeholders wary of turning the education establishment on its head.

But, for now, Obama is able to claim a pretty clear victory when it comes to his education agenda--and, on this November 4, I say carpe diem.