Beware Bipartisan School Reform

If everybody on the Hill is happy, Americans probably shouldn't be.


We are in for a season of grisly partisan bloodletting—or at least some pretty fierce jello wrestling—over health care, budgets, and pork, if the coverage of the opening days of the 112th Congress is any indication of things to come. But when it comes to education policy, politicians and pundits are inexplicably full of sunny optimism.

Patient zero in this epidemic of cheer is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this week expressing the hope that people on both sides of the aisle will "do something together for our children that will build America's future, strengthen our economy and reflect well on us all."

Set off by Duncan, the rest of the political news pack followed with stories about how this year's anticipated rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—re-christened No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001—is going to be totally bipartisan and awesome. But any touted bipartisan action by Congress should be regarded with suspicion—the more touting there is, the more suspicion is merited—and education reauthorization is no exception.

It's true that Democrats and Republicans sound more alike than they ever have on education policy. Reform is no longer a dirty word for Democrats, for instance. And Republicans want to spend more on teachers, by and large. Duncan highlights one point of rhetorical unity in his op-ed: "On many issues, Democrats and Republicans agree, starting with the fact that no one likes how NCLB labels schools as failures." The word failure is uncomfortable for the adults involved in education policy. In fact, it's a word that rarely sneaks into politics at all. The fact that No Child Left Behind set things up so that a government venture of any kind would wind up being forced to label itself a failure is pretty remarkable.

But agreeing to stop using hurtful words in cases where schools "are making broad gains" won't do a darned thing to improve messed up schools. If big chunks of a school population still can't read or do math anywhere near grade level after years and years of second chances—the criteria to become a failing school under NCLB—that school actually is failing. Even if the scores were worse last year.

And agreement on how to talk about fixing schools is a far cry from actually fixing schools. To listen to politicians talk, everyone is up for more flexibility and more accountability, but when it comes to concrete proposals, the two sides are still miles apart. Even in his kumbaya op-ed, Duncan slips in mention of his opposition to "federally dictated tutoring or school-transfer options." Though the jargon obscures what he's talking about, it's school choice. Those options are the heart of No Child Left Behind reforms. All the now-unfashionable monitoring and testing requirements instituted in that law were geared toward figuring out which kids deserve the backing of the feds when they're ready to bail out of their sub-par schools and go looking for something better inside (or outside) the traditional public school system.

The underlying political dynamics don't suggest that Congress is ripe for big bipartisan bear hugs, either. The newly Republican-dominated House isn't going to like the idea of Obama taking credit for "fixing the schools" if a bill passes. And teachers unions remain a force to be reckoned with. They have had a rough year; nobody likes to be depicted as the anti-Superman in theaters nationwide. The National Education Association gave Democrats $2 million in the 2010 cycle, and the American Federation of Teachers gave $2.6 million (compared with a comical $8,000 to Republicans). They expect a return on that money, and the kind of returns they're looking for are not bipartisan agreements about the virtues of transparency.

With both sides talking nice, but staking out clear territory, it's unlikely that education reauthorization will be a bipartisan love fest. Still, as Teach for America VP and ex-Mr. 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. A bunch of high-ranking moderates in education slots simply means that there's a slightly increased chance something might wind up on the president's desk. It tells us nothing about whether that something will be any good.

K-12 education in the United State is in a bad way. If education reauthorization goes smoothly, that will be a clear sign that no one decided it was worth it to rock the boat, even if everyone involved says that they are opposed to the status quo.

No matter what happens with education reauthorzation in this Congress, a fight over a controversial bill is unlikely to be a clear win for anyone. Education reform is tricky, and even the avid backers of testing and federally-madated choice agree that neither reform has proven to be the silver bullet reformers hoped for in 2001. The proposals on the table in 2011 are just as murky. Which means most legislators—moderate and bipartisan-inclined, or otherwise—will just want to make the issue go away. If they can find a solution that keeps the adults in Washington happy and doesn't use up too much valuable time on the floors and cloakrooms of Congress, they'll take it. That's bipartisanism, and it isn't the same thing as success.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.