We hosted an intriguing conversation at AEI yesterday on the aftermath of the 2012 elections and what they meant for education. (You can catch it here in the C-SPAN archive if you missed it.) The panel featured Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham, Alyson “Politics K-12" Klein, House Speaker John Boehner’s edu-ace Katherine Haley, pollster Kristen Soltis from the Winston Group, and yours truly. Guided by top-notch moderating from my colleague Andrew Kelly, we touched on any number of things. Here are my four takeaways:
1. The split on the Republican side. For a number of years, there’s been an assumption that Democrats are split between the “reformers” and the union wing, but that Republicans can be counted on to support all types of popular reforms (like merit pay and school accountability). In practice, that’s a dubious assumption. Middle class and suburban Republican voters who like their schools and their kids’ teachers have little cause to embrace disruptive reforms. They’ve been quiescent when legislators supported school choice for urban communities, and they express mixed feelings about reforms that threaten to discomfit their schools and systems. This is usually lost amidst the focus on other issues, but the failed initiatives on merit pay and teacher evaluation in red state strongholds South Dakota and Idaho, combined with Tony Bennett’s defeat in Indiana, should serve to put would-be reformers on notice.
2. Sequestration isn’t as big a deal as some might suggest. As Rotherham noted, state and district leaders are getting ready to deal with the cuts, but the threat’s “not really credible... because they’ve seen this movie a lot.” Moreover, because next year’s federal education aid won’t really be needed until August, states and districts will have a lot more wiggle room than is the case in other policy areas. Of course, the bottom line is that the President and Congress will probably reach a deal that puts off the cuts, continues many of the tax cuts, leaves the deficit on an unsustainable trajectory, and kicks the can down the road another year or two on the tough decisions.
3. Alyson Klein observed that the politics of Bennett’s defeat in Indiana reminded her of the coalition that formed around the Harkin-Enzi NCLB reauthorization plan, with conservatives and the teacher unions finding common ground. While they disagreed on spending levels, they could agree to support more flexibility for schools and on their desire to dramatically dial back federally mandated NCLB-style accountability. On a related note, Klein said she thought that the Obama administration doesn’t want to see NCLB reauthorization move forward, because they’re happy with where things stand (after the waivers) and worry about what kind of bill might take shape.
4. President Obama won reelection with a formless campaign, which leaves an open question as to what his second term will be about (uncertainty is only accentuated by the administration’s current order that executive branch staff ought not discuss plans for the second term.) On the campaign trail and at the convention, President Obama talked a lot about 100,000 STEM teachers, smaller classes, and more community seats, and not at all about teacher evaluation or merit pay. The education reformer of the first term seemed to vanish, at least for a time. It will be interesting to see whether the actions of the first term or the rhetoric of the campaign trail is a better predictor of what’s in store.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.