Could education be the one policy area where Republicans and Democrats find common ground in a new conservative Congress? Many people, including officials in the White House, think so. A recent New York Times Magazine article reported that the administration “see[s] areas for possible bipartisan agreement, like reauthorizing the nation’s education laws to include reform measures favored by centrists and conservatives.”
It would seem to make sense because, philosophically speaking, Republicans should support many aspects of Obama’s K-12 reform agenda. The president has bucked sections of his own party with his proposals, among others, for improving teacher accountability and expanding good charter schools. Even Diane Ravitch, an education historian and liberal opponent of the president, wrote in the National Journal, “If the GOP takes one or both houses, Obama will gain more support for his misbegotten education agenda.”
Maybe. But don’t hold your breath. Sure, Republicans and Democrats united to pass No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, and, sure, Obama has proposed school-reform plans that overlap with those long held by conservatives interested in breaking the stranglehold that teachers’ unions and other traditional interests have on education. But none of that trumps the rise of the Tea Parties and the bitter partisanship that has defined the president’s first two years in office—trends likely to continue for the next two years.
“A Republican takeover of the House is a recipe for inaction,” says Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector. Or, as Jack Jennings of the Center for Education Policy puts it, “It will mean deadlock.” I think they’re right.
The reasons are simple. First and foremost, Republicans have gained political ground by almost totally opposing Obama’s domestic agenda. Why would they stop now, particularly with the national election looming in 2012? “I doubt they want to give [Obama] an education bill that he would sign at the White House just before a presidential election,” says Jennings.
Moreover, the Tea Party movement’s vigorous focus on shrinking all aspects of the federal government—including the Department of Education, which many Tea Partiers simply want to abolish—is already pressuring more mainstream Republicans to reevaluate where they stand on education. “Anybody who thinks 2010 Republicans or incumbent senators looking over shoulders are interested in substantial legislation around education … just haven’t been paying attention to sentiment on that side of the aisle,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. (Republicans are so uninterested in cooperating on federal school policy that the Pledge to America, the party’s new agenda, doesn’t even contain the word “education.”)
Practically speaking, this means the administration’s blueprint for NCLB, which is already several years overdue for reauthorization and desperately needs restructuring, probably won’t pass, maybe not even in pared-down form. Congressman John Kline, the top House Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, told Education Week in September that, while he supports reauthorization in principle, teachers and superintendents in his Minnesota district are “frankly not real thrilled with the blueprint.” He added, “One of the things that we've been insisting on is that we have to make [NCLB] simpler, easier to comply with and more flexible, therefore putting some meaning back into local control.”
Similarly, don’t expect new money for Race to the Top (RTTT), Obama’s signature program for competitive education grants, because that, too, violates the small-government ethos. After all, it was authorized in the 2009 stimulus package, which Republicans are denouncing every chance they get, and it involves the Obama administration handing out billions of dollars to states that it deems most committed to reform. Kline has already said he won’t support giving Obama the additional $1.35 billion he’s requested for RTTT in the 2011 budget. “This is the U.S. Department of Education, putting [out its] view of what needs to be done. ... It's not the states deciding. It's not local control,” Kline told Education Week.
The question, then, is whether, absent new federal requirements and incentives, states and local governments can drive reform on their own. It’s possible, particularly in places that have already embarked upon reform efforts, but the history is not encouraging. “If school boards, superintendents, and local teacher unions put top priority on raising standards, narrowing gaps, emphasizing quality in the classroom and running world class schools, America wouldn’t be where it is,” Mike Petrilli and Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute wrote in a September op-ed. “In urban America and many suburbs, local control means union dominance. … In other suburbs, it means smug complacency.”
And what about new pre-K legislation? It would require more federal dollars, so don’t count on it. As for higher education laws, the best (or, rather, worst) we can expect out of a Republican Congress is that it will push back against Obama’s efforts to more tightly regulate for-profit schools.
Granted, the future for education reform could look a lot worse. “I don’t think that the Republicans are going to come in and mount some kind of assault on public education that will have lasting damage,” says Kevin Carey. “I think they will be a barrier to moving forward, but they won’t move us back.”
But, if the best we can expect is more of the status quo, we’re still talking about squandering two years in which the government could work to improve the lives of millions of American children. It would be a tragic domestic failure.