Why Both Political Parties Need Education Reform

Conservatives argue that markets will solve social problems more efficiently and effectively than the public sector while liberals insist that markets leave too many behind and that government intervention is needed to protect those most at risk. [pullquote position="left"]Education reform proves them both right. The combination of individual choice and government-driven accountability has lifted educational outcomes for millions of children. Take either one away, however, and many of the gains disappear.

Parents Want Choices

Today, the parents of nearly 10 million school children have opted out of the traditional public school system for private schools, charter schools or home-schooling. Choice is likely to grow in the years ahead given the home-schooling trends, strong public support for charters, and increasing numbers of states that allow the use of public dollars for private schools. While choice has provided better educational options to millions of children, however, it has done little to drive change in traditional schools. There are some notable examples where traditional public schools actively learn from high-performing charters and change their practice, but in most cities the bureaucracy, including teacher unions, is trying to stifle competition through political means.

Truth and Consequences

That’s why accountability is needed. High standards, aligned assessments, performance goals and mandated interventions have forced schools to get better or face consequences, from changes in curriculum, leadership and staffing to changes in governance. Accountability only works, however, with real commitment at the local level and, increasingly, that commitment is in question. Many states and districts have been reluctant to impose needed changes on underperforming schools. Instead, many opt for modest interventions that have the least impact. With respect to teacher evaluation, some 40 states now have policies on the books requiring the use of test scores as one of several factors in evaluating teachers, but most states and districts struggle with implementation. Many teachers say they value the feedback from evaluations, but teachers unions aggressively oppose the policy. As for maintaining high standards and aligned assessments, most states have stayed with the Common Core or a close variation, but more than half of the states that adopted the aligned assessments have since dropped them. Lack of alignment between standards and assessments undermines accountability.

Down to the States

Under the new federal education law, responsibility for accountability has now shifted back to the states, driven by conservatives who brandish “local control” as a sword to attack Washington. Unfortunately, they ignore the clear risk to accountability with less federal oversight. Texas, birthplace of the modern accountability movement codified by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, has retreated from high standards and accountability while pushing choice. In Massachusetts, a Republican governor is fighting the teachers union to expand choice but he is less willing to expend much political capital to protect high standards and aligned assessments. If he wants to know what choice without accountability looks like he can call his fellow Republican governor in Michigan, which has inadequate oversight and lots of low-performing charter schools. Consider true-blue California, which has more charter schools than any other state in the country but, for the last three years, has had little to no accountability. The state stopped reporting performance metrics during the transition to Common Core and the current governor is in no rush to bring it back, to the dismay of local civil rights organizations. A little further north, progressive Washington state has rejected teacher evaluation, led the attack on testing, and has actively limited parental choice despite pleas for more and better options from low-income families of color.

Have It Both Ways

Politicians on all sides are missing the bigger picture. If Democrats abandon accountability and tolerate low-performing traditional public schools, they feed into the Republican narrative that government just doesn’t work and that the market will better solve our problems. Choice will grow as parents vote with their feet. If Republicans weaken accountability and tolerate low-performing charter schools, there will be more calls for oversight and growing hostility to charters. Choice will stall, bureaucracy will expand and monopoly will prevail. The absence of verifiable progress also weakens the case for more funding, which charters and traditional public schools both want and many need. Without proof of progress, it’s hard for 1 in 3 Americans who actually use the public schools to convince the other two to continue investing in education. As an election issue, education reform may not play especially well in the political primaries where extreme voices and voters tend to dominate. In the broad middle, however, there is a clear consensus that accountability and choice are vital. Hopefully, the political parties will notice.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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