What the Election Means for Teacher Policy

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 08, 2010 2 min read
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You’ve heard all of the back-and-forth on this blog about “teacher effectiveness,” the Race to the Top, and performance-based compensation. What happens to those ideas, which have been heavily pushed by the Democratic administration, now that the House of Representatives and many state legislatures have turned Republican?

I’ve heard from a number of folks that there’s room for bipartisan work on teacher effectiveness policies and support for performance pay. That is probably true in a theoretical sense, but there are practical issues that could definitely get in the way.

One of the Obama administration’s proposals has been to make Title I grants for disadvantaged students contingent on states’ establishment of systems for measuring teacher effectiveness. But the idea of even more strings attached to these funds may not fly with a Congress chock-full of supporters of less federal involvement in education.

Another problem: Funding. Almost all performance pay is currently funded through discretionary grants like the Teacher Incentive Fund, which means that supporting performance pay would mean ponying up to the table with more dollars. But the Republican “Pledge to America” seeks to basically reduce discretionary spending.

An alternative to adding cash is to try to re-purpose existing sources of funds, like the slushy $3 billion in teacher-quality funding the Education Department sends to states every year through Title II of the NCLB law. This fund is probably pretty safe, despite all the rhetoric of fiscal austerity, because every state and most districts get a cut of it. Clawing it away is, therefore, a no-win proposition for members of Congress. But refashioning the money into a more-prescriptive program isn’t going to be an easy task, either, as I reported in this story.

As for legislative races, a couple of outcomes are particularly important. As Alyson Klein pointed out in a good blog item last week, Washington Sen. Patty Murray’s victory is also one for the National Education Association. Murray, a member of the Senate education committee, has been a supporter of more funding generally speaking, and specifically for federal class-size reduction allocations. And the NEA has used her office as a conduit for affecting policy.

Ed. policy wunderkind Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat favored by the unions despite their reservations about his approach to teacher policy, also won a close election battle. He’s said to be one of the administration’s go-to lawmakers for education. His priorities for education legislation will be important to watch.

Overall, the biggest obstacle on the table for pushing education policy along is this: The center coalition that put together the NCLB act in the first place has been decimated, and it’s unclear what will fill in the vacuum. Eduwonk has a good post up noting that the abolish-ED Republicans and the abolish-NCLB Democrats are likely to be brought into line by their respective party leaders, but that’s still a long way away from coming up with a bill that can actually move in the current policy climate.

Two things help grease the way for legislation to move: money and policy agreement. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of either right now in Washington.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.