Barack Obama’s promise to “meet our moral obligation to provide a world-class education” sets an ambitious goal that members of the Democratic Party can’t agree how to reach.
“America, we cannot turn back,” the Illinois senator said near the conclusion of his Aug. 28 speech at Invesco Field, a football stadium packed with more than 70,000 people waving flags and raising signs saying “Change.”
“Not with so much work to be done. Not with so many children to educate.”
In his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Obama mentioned the broad points of his platform to address the educational needs of students from preschool to college.
While Democrats agree with the goals of those proposals, members of the party debated—sometimes passionately—the fine points of how to set policies to meet them.
In the week leading up to Sen. Obama’s speech, education advocates gave different visions of how to revamp teacher pay and expand public school choice—two pieces of Sen. Obama’s K-12 agenda.
Different camps outlined their sometimes starkly different proposals in a series of forums, roundtable discussions, and speeches throughout the week—largely apart from the main sessions at the Pepsi Center, where the Democratic National Convention met for its first three days.
‘Army of Teachers’
Inside the convention hall, education got its share of brief mentions, but the federal No Child Left Behind Act was hardly mentioned from the podium, if at all.
Nor was it cited by Sen. Obama in his acceptance speech, at Invesco Field, where the nominee didn’t touch on or take sides in the intraparty squabble. But he did renew his call for new ways of setting teacher pay and finding ways to hold schools accountable.
“I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries, and give them more support,” Sen. Obama said. “And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability.”
Sen. Obama’s proposals for education, which are part of the party platform the convention approved by acclamation on Aug. 25, address the issues of teacher pay, charter school policy, and accountability.
The platform promises that an Obama administration would create programs to recruit and retain teachers, including efforts to experiment with new ways of compensating them; expand access to charter schools; and change the No Child Left Behind Act to improve the quality of the testing schools do under the federal law and to increase funding for its programs.
But the document and much of Sen. Obama’s campaign rhetoric leave plenty of unanswered questions on education policy, and certain elements within the party would offer different answers.
Throughout the week, Democratic groups and allies of the party offered their own ideas on pressing policy questions, focusing mostly on teacher pay and charter schools.
Teachers’ union officials and urban leaders differed over whether teacher pay should be based, in part, on the academic improvement of their students or whether additional compensation should be based on the educators’ credentials and professional experience.
Meanwhile, some Democratic elected officials argued for aggressively pursuing charter schools and other forms of public school choice—something the teachers’ unions and some other educators are less enthusiastic about.
The vagueness of the party’s platform left plenty of room for debate among Democrats should Sen. Obama and his running mate for vice president, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, win the Nov. 4 election.
Even before the four-day convention formally opened on Aug. 25, an emerging coalition of mostly urban Democrats started asserting itself on educational issues, offering alternatives to the policies promoted in particular by the teachers’ unions.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have long given the bulk of their political support to Democratic candidates, and members of the unions were well represented among the roughly 4,000 delegates to the national convention.
At an Aug. 24 event organized by Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, urban mayors and civil rights activists argued for teacher pay-for-performance and the expansion of charter schools.
Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., said at a press conference before the three-hour seminar that the debate over those issues is a “battle at the heart of the Democratic Party. … As Democrats, we have been wrong on education. It’s time to get it right.”
At the same press conference, Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the 49,400-student District of Columbia school system, added: “The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party that looks out for poor and minority kids. That is not what’s happening.” (“D.C.'s Chancellor Makes Her Case,” September 3, 2008.)
During the seminar, Ms. Rhee, a Democrat, and several other panelists asserted that the teachers’ unions are putting the interests of their members concerning salaries and working conditions over the educational needs of students.
The event didn’t sit well with union leaders.
“It was a cheap shot,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.3-million member AFT, said in an interview at the convention.
At a time when the party needs to unite, she said, the proponents of such approaches to school reform are creating division rather than showing leadership.
“This was a couple of mayors, and I very much appreciate their efforts. But they’re tearing down the people who they need to lift up,” said Ms. Weingarten, who said she wasn’t invited to the DFER seminar.
The differences of opinion over education policy here were an extension of a months-old debate between different camps of Democrats over how much improvement can be expected from public schools without improving the health, welfare, and economic status of the children in those schools. (“Dems Air Duelings Ideas on Education,” Aug. 27, 2008.)
Meanwhile, there are few other issues that are more divisive among teachers than merit pay.
Ms. Rhee and several others argued in favor of shifting the compensation model so that it’s partially based on teachers’ ability to improve the educational achievement of their students.
The unions oppose that approach because it puts too much emphasis on one measure and doesn’t consider factors outside teachers’ control, John Wilson, the executive director of the 3.2-million-member NEA, said in an interview here.
“It’s very tough to hold the faculty accountable for test scores without holding students and parents accountable,” he said.
Mr. Wilson and some rank-and-file teachers said they would endorse increased compensation for completing professional activities that make them better teachers.
Tod Bowman, a 12th grade government teacher at Maquoketa Community High School in Iowa, said he was taking time off without pay to attend the convention as a delegate for Sen. Obama and has completed a fellowship working for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
“I’m bringing this all back to the classroom, but not really getting any raises because of it,” Mr. Bowman said.
But supporters of pay plans using student test scores to determine additional compensation say that such raises and bonuses should be given based on the teachers’ success of increasing student achievement.
“That’s what it’s about,“ the Los Angeles-based philanthropist Eli Broad said at an Aug. 25 discussion on educational issues sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Roundtable, which held a series of discussions about domestic issues during the convention. Mr. Wilson of the NEA was one of several panelists at the event.
Policy Over Race
Union leaders also differ with other Democratic allies over school choice, specifically charter schools.
A new cadre of African-American politicians under the age of 50 is challenging the Democratic Party to do more to offer greater choice options among public schools, said Peter C. Groff, a Democrat and the president of the Colorado Senate.
“This is a generation that doesn’t look at race first, but policy first,” said Mr. Groff, 45. “It’s not looking at party first, but the best idea first.”
Mr. Groff said that group includes himself, Mayor Booker of Newark, and Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, among other politicians. But the most prominent politician among them is Sen. Obama, who supported efforts to open new charter schools in Illinois while he was a state senator from 1997 to 2005.
The politicians have changed their minds because that’s what citizens in their districts want, Mr. Groff told a group of charter school supporters at an Aug. 26 breakfast organized by the Alliance for Choice in Education, a Denver group that provides scholarships to K-12 students to attend private schools in the city.
“We’re talking to constituents, and they’re saying: ‘Why can’t we have school choice? Why can’t we have the same kind flexibility on schools that other people have?’ ” said Mr. Groff, who represents the northeastern section of Denver.
Despite the differences over education policy, educators at the convention said they are united behind Sen. Obama.
Even the members of the AFT, which had endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York early in the Democratic primary process, said that they would work in support of the party standard-bearer this fall. The NEA didn’t make an early endorsement, but formally threw its support to Sen. Obama after he had effectively clinched the nomination.
“You win some; you lose some,” Ted Kirsch, the president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate and a Clinton delegate, said in an interview on the convention floor. “When it was over in June, I knew I was supporting Obama.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Top-Notch Education ‘A Moral Obligation,’ Obama Tells Throng