The Great Centrist Issue
Is 2010 the year for No Child Left Behind?


Chester E. Finn Jr.

The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib is wise in the ways of Washington and practiced at reading its political entrails. But is he right to think that K–12 education is the great centrist issue of 2010 — and that it will reignite the Democrats’ prospects by appealing to independents and least a few Republicans? Hmmm.

In a column on Democratic “opportunities to disperse storm clouds,” Seib wrote the other day that party leaders need to “find an issue that is popular in the political middle,” that some Democrats think education is such an issue, and that “Education Secretary Arne Duncan is taking steps that have actual bipartisan appeal.” As examples, he cited “forcing changes in ossified education systems by making states actually compete to win federal grants” and “helping parents with college access and affordability.” He says we should “look for more from the president on that.”

This may well happen as budget and state-of-the-union time draws nigh and the White House settles on its themes for the year ahead. Even without opening the Pandora’s box of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the administration’s “Race to the Top” (RTT) program will focus the attention of educators and state and local officials during 2010, and the administration’s final decisions on RTT will signal much about its approach to education policy and the federal role therein.

Arne Duncan and his colleagues have hinted that the priorities of RTT will also animate their NCLB proposal — and that they’re close to unveiling such a proposal and urging Congress to get cracking. Reauthorization of that contentious, landmark act is already three years late, and a big reason for that delay has been the absence of a plan that both Democrats and Republicans could support. If the Duncan team proffers such a plan, it’s imaginable that Congress will indeed start to move.

Yet there are obstacles aplenty that have little to do with NCLB itself. This year brings an exceptionally hard-fought election. While each party would surely gain by attracting lots of independent voters, it’s not obvious that “bipartisanship” per se would turn out to be an asset to either side. The GOP in particular may judge that its November prospects benefit more from painting the administration and congressional majority in the worst possible light than from cooperating with them. (Indeed, Seib’s analysis suggests that “bipartisanship” would work to the political advantage of Democrats.) Underscoring that calculus is the rancid mood left by the health-care fracas with its party-line votes in the Senate. Republicans on the Hill — and a nation of conservatives — are also still smarting from Obama’s assent to phasing out the D.C. voucher program. Then there’s the plain fact that neither Senate education chairman Tom Harkin nor ranking House member John Kline is anyone’s idea of a centrist.

Duncan is a centrist sort, however, and — riding the RTT wave (which could still crash down upon him) — can be expected to strive to convince both sides that the best interests of kids and schools call for an NCLB makeover that can only happen if each side yields some traditional ground.

For what it’s worth, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute sketched such a package a year ago, and our plan still has merit. Partly paralleling our suggestions — especially the precept of “tight about ends, loose as to means,” an inversion of the NCLB approach — but mostly on its own, the Duncan team emerged from 2009 with astute insights into federal policy and some appealing NCLB themes of their own.

Duncan and assistant secretary Carmel Martin outlined these in a recent interview with Education Week. In her words,

Continuing a strong focus on teachers and leaders and talent more generally. To continue to focus on college-ready common standards and assessments matched against those standards. Continuing the focus on the lowest performing schools, how we’re going to take aggressive action to turn them around. And continuing the focus on the data. . . . Another big goal . . . is to improve the accountability system . . . helping to create incentives to move towards this new higher college- and career-ready set of standards. . . . Continuing this disaggregation of data and looking at how the subgroups are doing. Also moving toward the growth model. . . . Having a much stronger focus on rewards for high-performing schools, high-performing districts, high-performing states. . . . We’re trying to find ways to create incentives and rewards for high performers at every level.


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