By Jeanne Allen, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jeanne Allen is the founder and president of The Center for Education Reform (CER). The center was founded in 1993 to bridge the gap between policy and practice and restore excellence to education.
Schools of Thought has published and will continue to publish other views on this topic in the days up to the election.
“We can fix our schools because we don't get the biggest share of our campaign donations from the teachers' unions.”
This short, simple statement from Gov. Mitt Romney in an October 24 speech in Nevada sums up the real distinction between education reformers and protectors of the status quo, and reveals why when it comes to education policy, Romney would be a superior president - because he promised to put children, parents and teachers first, and to “put the teachers' unions behind."
The day has passed when that could be considered a partisan statement. We’ve heard stronger words, for example, from many Democrats, from former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein (also of the Clinton administration) to former New York City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz (now of Success Charter Network) who pressed the unions to explain why their contracts were protecting mediocrity instead of boosting high-performing teachers. Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams helped then-Republican Gov. Tom Ridge push through a charter school law in 1997. And in 2010, Williams ran for governor on a platform of school choice. His core message was that parents and teachers should come ahead of unions. Sound familiar?
Education reform is not, by any stretch, a “Republican” issue. The national Democratic Party has always viewed the education establishment as its bedrock constituency – from unions to school districts. But it’s different at the state and local level, where Democrats often reject the status quo, joining in a diverse coalition of voices pressing for significant reforms at every level.
While individually most of those Democrats will vote with their party, they are nevertheless closer to Romney’s view of education than they are to Barack Obama’s. Many have confided to me that their hope is to change the Democratic Party’s culture from one that favors teachers unions to one that favors parents.
But we cannot wait another generation or more for that to happen. Our children only get one chance at a decent education, and the clock is ticking. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”
We are falling behind the rest of the world, and millions of students are stuck in failing schools to which they are relegated solely by virtue of their zip code.
So how, exactly, would a Romney education regime handle education differently from the Obama administration? A number of ways:
Unions — It’s time to stop conflating “teachers” with “teachers unions.” They are not the same. Unions and bureaucrats stand in the way of real education reform. President Obama could have spent the past four years calling the unions on the carpet, but all we hear from his administration are platitudes about “getting along” and “collaborating.” Romney has no such allegiance.
School Choice — Organizations like the Black Alliance for Education Options have rightly made school choice a civil rights issue. But President Obama has resisted some programs that would provide such equal educational opportunities. His antipathy to a popular school choice program in Washington, D.C., which enjoyed prominent Democratic support (including then-Sen. Joe Biden) separates him from Gov. Romney, who has proposed that federal funds follow students to schools of choice if they happen to live in a state that offers it.
Charter Schools — President Obama and his administration emphasize their support for quality charter schools, but in the same breath say they are for “any school that performs well.” Performance contracts result in bad charter schools closing, but failing public schools get more and more funding under Obama administration programs. Such programs have favored the status quo while federal incentives for strong charter school laws have been ignored. An authentic advocate in the White House could make an impact on how those laws are molded, resulting in more quality charter schools.
Federal Role – Gov. Romney recognizes that the purview of these vital issues belongs in the states, closest to the parents and students most affected. In the Obama administration, a state can get additional funds just by promising to create new rules and processes favoring union-district collaborations (as if that, in and of itself, leads to achievement). Romney’s approach would be different: show progress using any tool, and money will follow success.
No Child Left Behind Act - Before it was enacted, officials were able to mask the data that proved schools were failing despite billions of dollars spent. A federal solution was no one’s cup of tea, but it was a response to state and local leaders abdicating their responsibility to make funding work for kids. But in implementing NCLB, rather than encouraging quality teaching and monitoring the results, school officials took the easy way, forcing teachers to obsess over tests. The Obama administration, responding to the outrage that resulted (“Someone actually wants accountability for results? The nerve!”), has issued multiple waivers to the program. But it wasn’t the law itself, but rather its poor implementation in the states, that caused the backlash. That will no doubt be on the list of fixes for a Romney agenda, whereas Obama will continue to defer to the unions. And if he wins reelection, the unions will further emboldened for having helped him to do so!
In the end, either side can enable or thwart the will and actions of local leaders and educators and parents. But no one can stop the tide of reform that has ignited a new generation of picky parents, choosy children and tenacious educators who find mediocrity unacceptable and know that no matter what their background or zip code, something better is out there waiting.
Whoever our country salutes on Inauguration Day, one thing is certain — reforms that center on choice and accountability must continue to rule the day. Washington needs to back off and let the people closest to the children make the real decisions about their kids.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeanne Allen.