Viewpoint: The Election Has Compromised Education Reform

Results across the country show the fragility of the reform agenda

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Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Achievement First Bridgeport Academy Elementary School, a charter school, on July 23, 2012 in Bridgeport, Conn.

The 2012 presidential election sidestepped the issue of school reform. Neither candidate spent much time laying out, let alone talking up, an education policy agenda. But around the country, there were ballot referendums and state and local races with big implications for schools. Teachers’ unions had a good night, but so did charter schools. In other words, Nov. 6 left the country with an education mandate as unclear as the electoral mandate overall. Still, what happened in various states will influence what happens in Washington during President Obama’s second term. Here are four key education issues to watch:

Standards for teachers and students
The biggest omen for the Obama Administration is, ironically, the defeat of a high-profile Republican, Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett. He has been a quiet Obama ally, most notably in the fight to reform teacher evaluations and develop common academic standards in all 50 states. The latter effort didn’t endear him to conservatives, and Bennett’s Democratic opponent said she’d pull the state out of the standards initiative. Bennett also angered teachers’ unions with his blunt talk and his support for one of the toughest teacher-evaluation laws in the country. This left-right convergence led to Bennett’s losing on the same night that a conservative Republican won the governorship, and that doesn’t bode well for Obama’s centrist approach to education reform. Or for that matter, for GOP leaders on these issues, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has championed many of the initiatives that got trounced on Tuesday night.

(MORE: Why Romney’s Big School Voucher Idea Was Really Pretty Puny)

In other Republican-on-Republican violence, Idaho schools chief Tom Luna wasn’t on the ballot, but all three of his big education-reform measures were roundly defeated by voters in this solidly red state. Luna, who is a Republican and also the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the national organization representing state education agencies, had pushed hard for initiatives that would have instituted merit pay for teachers, weakened collective bargaining and mandated more online education and use of laptops in public schools. All bombed at the ballot box, despite an influx of donations to support them from out-of-state donors including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, South Dakota voters rejected a new state law that would have incorporated test-score data into teacher evaluations, added merit pay and weakened teacher tenure. The bill had passed the state’s legislature by just one vote, and defeating it was a top priority of teachers’ unions.

Unions didn’t win everywhere, however. In Michigan, which Obama carried, voters rejected a measure that would have expanded collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other workers. Bottom line: Just as we saw in Wisconsin last year, organized labor is not viewed sympathetically by many voters from either party, but teachers’ unions can still pack a punch when their back is against the wall. No one wants to be perceived as offending teachers. And that message won’t be lost on state and local elected officials — who will all be on the ballot in the next few years — as they debate how much risk they’re willing to take to carry out the President’s agenda.

(MORE: Won’t Back Down: Why This Education Movie Matters)

Charter schools
Publicly funded charter schools were the night’s big education winner, scoring two hard-fought victories on opposite sides of the country. In Georgia, after the state supreme court struck down a charter-school law as unconstitutional, reformers took their case directly to voters, who by a decisive 58% to 41% margin approved a modification to the state’s constitution that will enable a special commission to authorize charter schools. In Washington, voters narrowly approved a referendum allowing the creation of charter schools, after rejecting similar initiatives in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Charter-school supporters like me see these wins as a sign that giving families more choices in education is no longer a question of if but of when and how.

Immigration reform
Maryland voters passed a state version of the controversial DREAM Act, granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants at public colleges and universities, provided they meet certain conditions. Long stalled in Congress, the measure sailed through on the ballot, with 59% of Maryland voters in favor of it and 41% opposed. That lopsided result, along with the growing importance of Latino voters in national politics, should embolden skittish politicians elsewhere in the country to help Obama tackle the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.

(MORE: Should Teachers Be Allowed to Sell Their Lesson Plans?)

Education spending
The other big issue, in addition to immigration reform, that the President will face early in his second term is the deficit. In California, the prospect of additional education budget cuts helped prompt voters to pass a temporary increase in sales and income taxes. Fiscally, California is running on fumes, but the difficulty of doing something about it previews the coming debate in Washington over balancing spending cuts and tax increases to get the federal budget under control.

The fiscal cliff will now dominate politics in Washington. But the real education story of the 2012 election is the fragility of the reform consensus and the high-wire act the President and Republican reformers have ahead of them.

9 comments
CerebralSmartie
CerebralSmartie

A highly controversial issue about education seems to always be overlooked. USA needs to reform the unaffordable  and unrewarding practice of  systematically testing , labeling and medicating of students who are perceived to be "overly impulsive". It is based on junk science.

School staffs have stepped over the line and instead of just teaching, each year the teachers and the staff or the school, including the expanding special education departments and the school psychologists, in each state, for every public school school are complicit with the systematic labeling of students with psychological disorders.  It they perceive  a student as having "attention deficit disorder" , the students are shuffled into highly subjective psychological tests, all paid for by tax payers. Lifelong medication is the frequent outcome for students.

If this was a successful approach to education, why are our National Test Scores what they are? The budgets for education continue to escalate yet the return for the money invested  indicates that new and fresh approaches are required.

There is a wealth of information available to dispute the current approach this practice of testing, labeling, and medicating, however, the pharmaceutical companies have a strong lobbying power. There is a plethora of resources available that suggest that the current system that is now in place requires a total overhaul. Reform is desperately needed.

To learn more about the issues,  please visit http://ablechild.org/help.htm.

AbleChild, a 501c3 non profit organization, has been established toraise public awareness regarding the psychiatric labeling and druggingof children, and the risks of mandatory mental health screening.

Let's see if this post gets censored. 

MartinTrejo
MartinTrejo

la reforma educativa la deberia haber impulsado en el primer mandato coel poder de los votantes que en ese momento tenia . ahora ni sueñen que va a impulsar un cambio de rumbo . saludos desde argentina

Bilgewater
Bilgewater

There are many reasons why Dr. Tony Bennett was defeated in Indiana, with only a few of them mentioned in this article.  

He was regularly dismissive of input on eventhe smallest details of his reform plans. Then like a desk-bound general, heattacked his troops without finding out what was needed to carry out hisreforms. Teacher anger was only one reason why he was defeated.

I attended a meeting at Rochester (Indiana) High School in October 2009 whereIndiana Department of Education officials took "input" from thepublic about teacher licensing rules (REPA). The audience consisted ofteachers, state representatives, school superintendents, and educationprofessors. Speaker after speaker spoke out against Bennett's reforms; not oneembraced the IDOE's new plans which sought to streamline (actuallyde-professionalize) teacher ed. One education professor said "Come to us;tap our expertise. We [professional educators] will help you get itright." Bennett's IDOE officials listened dutifully, but in the end Bennettand the IDOE rammed this program through without any modifications.

You want more? Read below:http://ahuntingtonteacher.blogspot.com/2012/10/tony-bennett-indiana-fiasco.htmlhttp://www.journalgazette.net/article/20121107/BLOGS13/121109630/-1/BLOGS

Sincerely, an Indiana teacher

kf.wheatley
kf.wheatley

Both campaigns spoke little about education reform because what is currently called "reform" is opposed by a large and growing number of teachers, teacher educators, educational researchers, parents and students.

Despite the wonderful-sounding rhetoric of "higher standards" and "greater accountability" and "choice" and all the rest, the current "reforms" are based on outdated ideas about learning, development, motivation, and curriculum. Not surprisingly, all of the major policy initiatives have failed to improve America's educational trajectory, but they have been very expensive and have caused enormous collateral damage. Basing policies on myths and misunderstandings makes bad things happen.

The National Academy of Sciences has scolded policymakers for basing these so-called "reforms" on ideology, not evidence.  This is exactly right: Most "reforms" are simply not supported by the best scientific evidence.

For example, after decades, vouchers have not proven they improve learning and development, and the same is true of charter schools. However, both approaches do de-stabilize a public school system that tens of millions of families rely on.

Also, decades of research reveals consistent failures for the kind of performance pay that politicians believe simply MUST make teaching better. Test score pay doesn't improve teaching, but does make many things worse. Similarly, there is no evidence that non-union teachers are any better, although going that route will make the middle class poorer and less secure. Furthermore, there was never any empirical evidence that national standards were essential for improving educational quality, and there are many ways in which standardizing education more is likely to undermine children's development and learning.

The "reformers" ... usually lawyers, politicians, CEOs, and pundits off somewhere in think tanks, are facing increasing resistance from people who know children and teaching well, people who understand how "higher standards" dumbed down curriculum, who understand why the "choice" movement may leave most kids with poorer choices than before, and who understand why high-stakes testing is not the answer, it is currently the central obstacle to quality education. 

While it is true that current policies are reforms in a certain sense of the word, it is also true that crashing your care into a tree will "re-form" your car. 

Expect more resistance from people who have a deep systems understanding of children and education.

lovejive
lovejive

@destor23 Seems you'd be fine with paying a mechanic for an oil change whether or not it is done to a high standard. 

destor23
destor23

Weakening collective bargaining rights is not good education reform.  Workers should have the right to organize to demand good pay and good working conditions.  Teachers aren't doing what they do out of charity.  The idea that a teacher should be held responsible for the test scores of a student is pretty questionable as that is not entirely in the teacher's control. 

BruceWilliamSmith
BruceWilliamSmith

I see much of the night's results as a rejection of Wall Street, both its corporate candidate and its hedge fund managers' approach to educational reform. Educational reform still needs to happen -- we can't keep going on as we have and expect to retain our standard of living -- but some of the big funders of both parties have been pushing an approach that is being roundly rejected by voters. We need to get education reform back on track, including prominently the relatively rare initiative of pro-(reformed) union charter schools that Steve Barr and others were pushing in 2007, before things went steadily awry thanks in part to the machinations of well-meaning accountability hawks.

hermione3280
hermione3280

@lovejive 

Children are not machinery. They have good days and bad days like the rest of us. The teacher could be doing a stellar job, and when the test day comes around the students dog may have died, or his/her parents are getting divorced. They can't be expected to compartmentalize and suck it and take the test. I'm all for fair evaluations that take teachers, students, admins, and parents into account. It takes more than one teacher to educate a child.

MartinTrejo
MartinTrejo

@BruceWilliamSmith tal cual bruce ....pero eso de wallll se consigue con una clase social amplia des politizada... fuera de la politica ....la educacion vuelve con la politica a la calle