Friday, February 11, 2011

On Your Marks, Get Set, Reauthorize!


Jack writes on the first rumblings on Capitol Hill of a move toward ESEA reauthorization in 2011:

The House Education and Workforce Committee held its first hearing of the new year on ESEA reauthorization yesterday. Entitled "Education in the Nation: Examining the Challenges and Opportunities Facing America's Classrooms," the hearing featured expert testimony from former Arizona Superintendent and GOP policy consultant Lisa Graham Keegan, Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute, and Dr.Ted Mitchell of the New Schools Venture Fund.

"Government is the Problem"
As noted in the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, these experts have a whopping nine years of teaching experience between them and generally pushed for a conservative approach to education reform. In particular, Mr. Coulson’s testimony centered on an argument that Federal spending on education has done virtually nothing to improve math and science test scores or close the achievement gap over the past fifty years. His data is interesting, but the conclusion that the Federal role in education should be axed comes off as quaint. 

Ms. Keegan and Dr. Mitchell forwarded a similar approach of just “getting out of the way” of local and state authorities. They both argued for more charter schools and greater local control. They also applauded the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top scramble for cash, as well as parent trigger laws. Finally, Dr. Bennett laid out a strategy for reform based on three ideas: 1) Identify and reward excellent teachers and principals, 2) Enforce school accountability but allow flexibility for low-performing schools, 3) Give families a “voice” in education through school choice and trigger laws.

No Silver Bullet
At the end of the day, that’s the picture of education reform under the new Republican House: less Federal “meddling” and more innovation through school choice and local control. Again, these things don’t sound particularly nefarious at first, but they conceal a deeper thesis that we can solve the problems of the public education system in this country by gradually dismantling it. 

I admit it, I’m skeptical of the push for more charter schools. I know it's not the cool thing to say right now, but I’m just not sure we have enough information yet to determine that a charterization of the American public education system is the silver bullet it's marketed to be. I also think that government, when operating transparently and concertedly, can do and has done some very important things in education. Red flags go up for me when I hear folks say, “Let’s just get government out of our way.” That usually means we’re going to deregulate and defund and let the market decide who gets shiny new schools and who gets the dregs. 

Curious Tensions
On that note, this was just the first of many hearings that will be taking place over the next few months. Steam does seem to be gathering for a 2011 reauthorization of ESEA, but it’s clear this will be the kind of “dialogue” we’ll be hearing on Capitol Hill. It’s also clear there’s some definite tension between the Republican and Democratic wings of the committee that might hamper the process. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that as in 1994, the Republicans have renamed the committee from “Education and Labor” to “Education and Workforce.” The L-word never sat well with the GOP for some reason. Also, check out the revamped committee website complete with an anti-Obama news feed (the Dems have kept their own separate website). It’s good for a chuckle if you’re into the whole partisan thing.

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