"When Oprah starts talking about it, we're almost there," says Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. School choice is "definitely a mainstream topic right now," Fuentes crows at National School Choice Week festivities in Washington, D.C., in January. "Five or six years ago, when I got into this movement, we were viewed as the crazy voucher folks in Florida running around trying to pass legislation. Now Oprah is talking about it, so we're no longer crazy. We're making sense. We're making progress."
Oprah isn't alone in her late-breaking interest in education reform. Documentaries about school choice are popping up like pimples on a middle school boy, first among them the wildly successful, Sundance-winning Waiting for "Superman," by director David Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame. President Barack Obama spent 1,000 words of his 7,000-word State of the Union address this year on schools, referring to public education as "a system that's not working." Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kicked off the new year by writing in The Washington Post that "few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform." Old Democratic mayors are saying nice things about reform, and new Republican governors are saying mean things about the status quo. And then there's Oprah, who devoted one of her final episodes to school reform. Her guests included Guggenheim, education technology champion Bill Gates, and the controversial former chancellor of the District of Columbia's public schools, Michelle Rhee.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—rechristened No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001—is overdue for congressional reauthorization. On the state level, tight budgets and partisan rivalries are driving a reevaluation of how education money is spent. Policy makers are taking a fresh look at the way teachers are compensated, considering drastic reductions in administrative overhead, and reconsidering the role of technology in schooling. Independent charter schools and publicly funded vouchers are on the rise.
None of these ideas are new, but implementing them has taken on a new urgency. Is 2011 finally the year for serious education reform?
There is no denying that U.S. schools are ripe for reform. Per-pupil education spending has doubled in the last three decades, while test scores have remained stubbornly flat. American kids squat solidly in the middle of the pack in international testing, with 15-year-olds ranking about average in math and reading, slightly below average in science. Dropout rates in major cities are approaching 50 percent.
But schools have been this bad for a long time. Why the sudden surge of interest?
While reform remains primarily a Republican hobbyhorse, the conversion of some prominent Democrats has brought energy and life to the pool of exhausted political players. Michelle Rhee, the best-known of the eponymous Supermen in Guggenheim's documentary, identifies as a Democrat and worked for Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty (who lost the 2010 Democratic primary to a candidate backed by the teachers union). The Obama education team, led by Duncan, has been more open to talking about education reform than any Democratic administration in recent memory. Recently departed New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is a Democrat as well; he first made his name prosecuting Microsoft for antitrust violations in the Clinton Justice Department. Democratic campaign strategist Joe Trippi actively supports school choice. Even the rabble-rousing minister and lefty activist Al Sharpton has joined a new, Gates-funded lobbying group called Democrats for Education Reform.
Newark, New Jersey, boasts the reform dream team of zippy young Democratic Mayor Cory Booker plus fat and happy Republican Gov. Chris Christie. The two politicians are planning a massive education overhaul, which may include big cuts in the city's morbidly obese education bureaucracy, more support for charters and vouchers, and performance pay for teachers, all fueled by a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The media have been friendly toward their bipartisan effort—Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah together as well—making reformers giddy. "When the most liberal paper [the Newark Star-Ledger] in the state endorses a voucher bill," says Derrell Bradford, executive director of New Jersey's Excellent Education for Everyone, "the only thing stopping you is you."
But if all obstacles had indeed been removed, parents would have widespread education choice, and public schools would be noticeably on the mend. Neither is yet close to being true.
In urban school districts, where schools have been disaster zones for at least a generation, despair is breeding robust cooperation. But areas of bipartisan reform agreement are smaller on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country. More radical school choice proposals, such as vouchers for private school tuition, are mostly off the table. Usually when the two parties join hands it's not to change the status quo but to protect it. When Republicans talk about fixing schools, they often mean simply giving kids and parents ways to bail out of the worst of the worst. When Democrats talk about reform, they tend to prefer spending more to patch things up and build on top of the existing system. Both sides wind up voting for increased spending in the short and long run.
The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which controls the flow of federal K–12 funds to the states, is typically revisited every five to seven years. Duncan and others are hopeful they can get some form of education reauthorization to the president's desk for a signature this year despite the Republican takeover of the House. As Teach for America vice president (and former husband of Michelle Rhee) Kevin Huffman points out in U.S. News and World Report, "the relevant committee chairs and ranking members (Tom Harkin and Michael Enzi in the Senate, John Kline and George Miller in the House) are experienced pros"—and known moderates, the sort of people more likely to keep the spigot open than push radical reform.
In this regard they are in step with the president, who despite a reformist reputation has a mostly status quo record. Obama's main boast about K–12 education reform in the State of the Union address was that "instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top." It would have been more accurate to say, "In addition to pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a relatively insignificant competition called Race to the Top."
At $4.4 billion, Race to the Top spending accounted for just a small share of the $500 billion spent on education at the federal, state, and local level. That said, by refusing to give states the money until after they implemented reforms such as publicizing information on teacher quality and lifting caps on charter schools, the administration did manage to elicit a decent-sized bang for its buck. As Obama correctly noted, "For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning."
In education policy, Washington has tended to be the worst kind of backseat driver. The real power to set curriculum and allocate resources rests with the states, meaning the federal government can only bribe, cajole, and reprimand from a distance. But the bribes keep getting bigger and bigger, which means state policy is increasingly subject to the whims of the feds; many reformers would like to use that influence to advance school choice. In the case of Race to the Top, the piles of cash were big enough (a couple hundred million dollars per state in most cases) and the rules specific enough that they gave state legislators, governors, and education bureaucracies sufficient incentive to risk ticking off teachers unions a little.