Society and Culture, Education

A Major Loss for the Old Left in Education

The administration’s priorities for the Race to the Top have put the nation’s teachers unions in the most awkward position. By supporting initiatives the unions loathe, the administration publicly put the unions on a very lonely island. When conservatives and moderates supported reforms like charters and performance pay, that was one thing; but now that a liberal Democratic administration is supporting these initiatives and putting billions of dollars behind them, it shows just how far out of the mainstream the unions’ positions are—even the New York Times recently scolded the National Education Association (NEA) for its impertinence.

To be clear, being out of the mainstream isn’t always a bad thing, especially when it comes to K-12 policy, where bad ideas linger long after their lack of value has been demonstrated and where gimmicky ideas often catch fire. But the Race to the Top priorities fall into neither category; they have slowly and steadily gained steam over years and build on concepts that most people support (more choice in public education, compensating educators based on their performance, etc.).

The challenge for the unions is what to do about this all. Criticizing the administration only serves to emphasize their position on the island. Staying silent is the virtual equivalent of abandoning their long-held positions.

With its official comments on the Race to the Top, the NEA has decided to fight. While it halfheartedly “applauds” a few concepts underlying the administration’s priorities and lists several items “we can support,” it declares that overall the “proposal misses the mark” and lists many things “we cannot support.”

In terms of substance, the NEA’s submission is a thorough and serious exposition of the views of the old left. It criticizes assessments, programs that link student performance data to teachers, and efforts to lift charter caps. It opposes alternative teacher certification and paying more to teachers in high-need subjects. It seeks more money.

Though I strongly disagree with these views, they are legitimate positions. In some places, however, the document devolves into a screed. Take this example: “It appears that the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America’s public schools.” (In fact, charters make up a small portion of the Race to the Top priorities.)

In one place, however, the NEA scores a direct hit. It accurately points out that the administration has conveniently jettisoned its professed devotion to the strong-on-goals, loose-on-tactics approach to federal involvement in education. The priorities reveal a highly prescriptive federal government, one telling states and districts precisely what it wants done—something Education Secretary Arne Duncan has frequently criticized when discussing No Child Left Behind.

A number of others have criticized the administration’s plan for the same reason. We’ll know if this line of argument persuaded the administration when it releases the final priorities this fall. But even if the administration does decide to up the flexibility, providing a small win to the unions, it is virtually inconceivable that it would alter its reform priorities. And that is a major loss for the old left.

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