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Obama's Shrewd NCLB Strategy

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

You can learn a lot about a party from the guest list. Last Friday, when President Obama announced his plan to offer states reprieve from No Child Left Behind’s performance targets (failing to meet the targets can trigger harsh sanctions for schools), he was introduced by Republican Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee and joined onstage by Independent Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Haslam governs a right-to-work state (unions can’t enforce membership, making their ranks thinner), and this June he signed a law stripping teachers of their collective bargaining rights. Chafee is a strong ally of the teachers’ unions in a state dominated by labor.

In short, when it comes to education policy controversies, they are positioned at the poles. And yet they both found something to like in Obama’s new policy, which offers states waivers to key NCLB provisions as long as they adopt certain elements of his reform agenda, such as “College and Career-Ready Standards” and better teacher evaluation systems. Halsam praised the plan for “allowing Tennessee the flexibility to abide by its own rigorous standards.” Chafee, though he didn’t comment Friday, was no doubt pleased by Obama’s assurances that teachers would henceforth feel less pressure to “teach to the test.”

Of course, support for the plan is not universal. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who a week earlier introduced his own (now moot) NCLB reform amendments, attacked the president’s plan for overstepping: “[T]he president is turning the education secretary into a national school board by imposing new federal mandates,” Alexander said. And he wasn’t the only one raising a fuss about that proposal. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a similar criticism. But notice something about that criticism? It’s coming from both sides of the ideological divide, just like the praise.

And that makes sense when you think about what Obama is doing. On one hand, Obama is stripping away NCLB’s federally-imposed sanctions on failing schools and making funding streams more fluid on a local level. On the other hand, he is insisting upon adoption of national academic standards (a common core curriculum) and offering waivers without waiting for congressional approval. Similarly, in addressing teachers’ unions, he’s having it both ways: mandating that teachers be held more accountable in the classroom and lowering the stakes of standardized testing for "failing" schools.*

Whether out of political calculation or genuine policy impetus (or both), Obama has effectively managed to straddle a bipartisan middle ground – which is fitting, since support for reforming NCLB has a genuinely bipartisan character. The waiver plan won’t please everyone, but it’s palatable enough that most states will probably take up his offer, allowing him to enact big chunks of his education reform platform. That’s a remarkable accomplishment in a period of intense congressional gridlock.

* To clarify: Schools need not use the new evaluation systems to make decisions about teacher salary and layoffs. In addition, once the waivers go into effect, principals and teachers will no longer face the threat of layoffs (among other sanctions) for failing to meet the test score-determined "adequate yearly progress" NCLB mandated.