Democrats need to be honest and serious about education policy writes Robert Gordon, a former Kerry education adviser, in The New Republic. Simply calling for more spending and carping at No Child Left Behind is bad politics and bad policy, he argues. This is an excellent and important article, and it seems to be readable without a subscription.
To get the politics right, progressives need to act on a policy principle that Americans understand: Money ain’t everything. The United States has tripled education funding per student since the 1960s, and we now outspend all but a few countries. But our students’ reading and math scores have edged up only modestly, and our achievement remains in the middle of the developed world. Yes, money matters; the shortfall in NCLB funding has hurt the law’s own cause. Democrats deserve credit for supporting more spending on schools. But they squander that credit when they make money their only focus.
In emphasizing resources, Democrats evade questions of culture and institutions. Those matter, too. It matters whether we set high expectations for schools and teachers or accept mediocrity, and whether we impose consequences for failure or excuse it.
“Progressives are misled by the logic of their own Bush-hatred: Bush is for NCLB, so NCLB must be bad.” Accountability didn’t start as a Republican issue, writes Gordon, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. It shouldn’t be conceded to the GOP by a party that claims to speak for the poor.
At a time when Americans are unsure what Democrats stand for, Democrats should give some resounding answers: The achievement gap is a national disgrace, and equal opportunity is a national command. Democrats will require greater support for schools, and greater demands on them, than ever before. They will use federal power to pursue equal justice–even at the expense of states’ rights, even in the face of their own constituencies. Democrats will put children first.
Many Democrats are cheering state lawsuits against NCLB. Gordon points out this belated support for states’ rights simply makes Democrats look unprincipled.
Before NCLB, most states didn’t even track the performance of poor students. Thanks to NCLB, many schools are now offering those students help they desperately need. If the NEA’s suit prevails in court, it won’t even yield more money; it will just yield precedents limiting federal power and enable states to ignore the law’s demands. That would be sad: One of the NEA’s plaintiffs told The New York Times that NCLB had forced her district to offer longer school days and Saturday classes for low-achieving students. Progressives should celebrate that fact, not complain about it.
. . . Schools that fall short under NCLB may indeed be required to offer tutoring after school, or to help students transfer to other public schools, or to reopen as charter schools. These steps may look punitive to many adults inside the schools. For children who aren’t learning, however, these measures offer hope for a better education.
Gordon thinks Democrats can recapture the education issue by focusing on improving teacher quality. But that means paying more for some teachers than others based on their abilities and willingness to tackle difficult assignments. Why “offer $80,000 salaries to middle-aged and mediocre gym teachers while losing bright young chemistry teachers who make only $40,000?” Democrats resist market principles when it comes to education.
Read the whole thing. Gordon is right on. But I wonder if the Democratic leaders are capable of leading on this issue.
This Eduwonk post points to the vehement union hostility to paying some teachers more than others. The Sacramento Bee reports on reaction to the (Republican) governor’s plan to pay teachers more to teach in low-performing schools.
“Does he think teachers are whores – that you have to pay them more to do this?” asked Steve Blazak, a spokesman for United Teachers Los Angeles.
Maybe Schwarzenegger thinks teachers are normal human beings.