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Democrats Air Dueling Ideas on Education

By David J. Hoff — August 22, 2008 8 min read
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., waves to the crowd outside a town hall meeting at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Va., last week.
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Democrats are almost certain to leave their convention in Denver united behind Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as their nominee for president.

But it is less likely that they’ll settle an intraparty disagreement over the most pressing question in K-12 education policy: How much can the public expect of schools?

The stark differences emerged the week after Sen. Obama secured enough delegates to claim the nomination in June. On back-to-back days, two groups released public statements outlining approaches for improving K-12 achievement. One argued that policymakers need to invest in health care and other social programs before schools can deliver large increases in student achievement, while the other said that increased accountability, the expansion of charter schools, and other education policies would result in better student outcomes.

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The differences of opinion demonstrate that teachers’ unions and civil rights activists, which traditionally have been allies and are powerful forces in the Democratic Party, disagree on some significant policy issues, particularly on education, said Patrick J. McGuinn, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has written extensively about the politics of educational issues.

“They now see their policy agendas as considerably opposed to each other,” Mr. McGuinn said of the two blocs. “That’s the making of a big battle. The outcome of the struggle within the Democratic Party is going to be crucial for the future of education reform.”

Matter of Priorities

That struggle was evident in the two manifestos released on consecutive days in mid-June. Although both groups include Republican supporters, their leaders are Democrats, some of whom have served at high levels of Democratic administrations.

In one manifesto, called the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,” a group comprised mostly of social scientists and education researchers said that society needs to invest significantly in children’s health care and other social services, as well as extending learning time, before student achievement will increase dramatically.

The next day, the Education Equality Project—a group of urban educators and civil rights activists—endorsed a series of educational policies such as tough accountability measures, innovative teacher pay, and expanding charter schools, that they say would increase student achievement regardless of changes in other social or health care policies.

The draft of the Democratic platform to be considered by the convention’s delegates contains policies proposed by both groups.

The draft, which closely follows Sen. Obama’s rhetoric from the primary campaign, recommends experimenting with alternative forms of teacher pay—a point emphasized by the Education Equality Project.

“We’ll reward effective teachers who teach in underserved areas, take on added responsibilities like mentoring new teachers, or consistently excel in the classroom,” the proposed platform says.

On accountability, the draft says Democrats would use the No Child Left Behind law to track whether schools are closing the achievement gap between white students and minorities.

The draft also promises to expand learning opportunities by extending the school day, offering summer school, and other efforts to help students, according to one of the proposals listed in the “Broader, Bolder” statement.

Outside of education, the platform outlines a plan to provide “affordable, quality health care coverage for all Americans,” a priority of the “Broader, Bolder” statement.

“All of the pieces are there,” said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute and one of the organizers of the “Broader, Bolder” effort.

While one goal of the Democrats is to unify themselves around the platform, voices from both the “Broader, Bolder” and Education Equality camps were scheduled to promote their agendas this week in Denver.

The Education Equality Project had scheduled an Aug. 24 forum at the Denver Art Museum to discuss its proposals. Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student New York City school system, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York City-based community leader and civil rights activist, were both slated to speak on panels at the event. Mr. Klein and Mr. Sharpton organized the effort to produce the Education Equality Project’s statement.

The next night, Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, who supports the “Broader, Bolder” approach, was scheduled to speak to the Democratic convention during prime time. Reg Weaver, the president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, also was listed as a speaker during the convention’s opening night.

The debate over education policy and its priorities is unlikely to play a prominent role in the fall campaign because education policy issues haven’t been a top-tier concern of voters this year. But the statements do illuminate the differences among Democrats that will arise once the next president takes office and Congress returns to its effort to reauthorize the NCLB law.

Campaign Topic

The debate over the dueling statements emerged in the presidential campaign briefly earlier this month. In a New York City speech, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is to be nominated by the Republicans next week in St. Paul, Minn., said he would sign the Education Equality Project’s statement and challenged Sen. Obama to do so. (“McCain Supports ‘Equality Project’,” Aug. 13, 2008.)

Sen. Obama’s campaign didn’t respond to Sen. McCain’s speech. After both the “Broader, Bolder” and Education Equality statements were released in June, an Obama campaign aide said that the Illinois Democrat endorsed the sentiments in both statements because he believes federal policymakers should improve access to health care and social services while also working to improve schools.

The response isn’t surprising because the two statements are compatible, said Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 408,000-student Chicago Public Schools.

“The debate over either/or is a phony debate,” said Mr. Duncan, who was the only person who signed both the “Broader, Bolder” and Equation Equality statements when they were released in June. “It should be both/and, and we should push as hard as we can on both fronts.”

Mr. Klein, the New York City Schools chancellor, who was a senior official in the U.S. Department of Justice under President Clinton, said the differences between the two statements is mostly a question of emphasis and priorities. He supports the “Broader, Bolder” statement’s call for improved health care and social services, but he added that he believes schools can improve students’ performance without them.

“I have no doubt that bad schools significantly contribute to [lower] student achievement,” Mr. Klein said in an interview. “Why do we want to let schools off the hook?”

Critics have said that the “Broader, Bolder” statement would do just that because it doesn’t emphasize how to hold schools accountable and it does not explain how it will require schools to improve the academic outcomes of students.

Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education and one of the original signers of the “Broader, Bolder” statement, responded that many of the statement’s supporters include people who have argued for educational accountability, including Marshall S. Smith, whose academic research in the 1980s and early 1990s provided the conceptual framework for educational accountability efforts, and Diane Ravitch, a noted historian of education who served as an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.

But one critic of the “Broader, Bolder” statement said that several other supporters of that approach are critical of existing accountability measures and that the statement itself lacks a specific explanation of how the group proposes to change them.

“They’re absent on accountability,” said Kevin Carey, the research and policy director for Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank. “There’s nothing in the manifesto that provides enough concrete detail.”

Informing NCLB

While the differences between the two camps may not be prominent during the convention, they almost certainly will be a major part of the debate over the future of the NCLB law.

“A lot of this will get fleshed out in the reauthorization of NCLB,” said Mr. McGuinn of Drew University.

The 6½-year-old law, one of President Bush’s most significant domestic accomplishments, requires states to hold schools and districts accountable for increasing student achievement on a pace toward all students being proficient by the end of the 2013-14 school year. A congressional effort to reauthorize the law stalled last year. The law’s renewal will be one of the top K-12 priorities for the next Congress, regardless of whether Sen. Obama or Sen. McCain is elected president.

The “Broader, Bolder” statement says: “The potential effectiveness of NCLB has been seriously undermined ... by its acceptance of the popular assumptions that bad schools are the major reason for low achievement, and that an academic program revolving around standards, testing, teacher training, and accountability can, in and of itself, offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on achievement.”

Instead, policymakers should look for ways to replace the “flawed accountability systems” established under the NCLB law with ones that use “appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods,” the statement adds.

“We will not surrender one inch on the issue of reforming schools and having an accountability system,” said Mr. Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, a research group with ties to major labor unions.

“I’m not sure that other people have spelled out their full accountability system either,” said Mr. Mishel.

The Education Equality Project doesn’t mention the NCLB law, but it does say that policymakers should “take immediate steps to ... create accountability for educational success at every level—at the system and school level, for teachers and principals, and for central-office administrators.”

In July, Mr. Klein, Mr. Duncan, Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the 50,000-student District of Columbia school system, and Beverly L. Hall, the superintendent of the 51,000-student Atlanta Public Schools, told a congressional committee that they support the NCLB law’s accountability measures. (“City Leaders Back Stronger Accountability,” July 30, 2008.)

Ms. Rhee and Mr. Duncan signed the Education Equality statement. Ms. Hall signed the “Broader, Bolder” statement.

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Democrats Air Dueling Ideas On Education

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