By Morton Kondracke
With student performance still dismal 23 years after a federal report proclaimed “a nation at risk,” it’s just possible that a decisive, bipartisan “grand bargain” can be struck to improve the public schools.
The deal would be: Republicans agree to more equitable distribution of school funding – including higher teacher pay – while Democrats agree that teachers should be paid for performance, not just seniority.
Two national initiatives give rise to hope that that the decades-long right-left battle over education, accountability versus money, can be broken at last and the public schools improved.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a project along with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the liberal Center for American Progress and the moderate America’s Promise that will start by publishing report cards on each state’s progress on school reform.
Following up its campaign against trial lawyers, the chamber is likely to target teachers unions that resist reform. The presence in the chamber coalition of the liberal CAP, headed by former President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, John Podesta, could clear the way for other Democrats to challenge the unions.
At the same time, Podesta’s CAP is urging correction of fiscal inequities between school systems to accompany higher national standards, which chamber officials say they would consider supporting as part of overall reform.
Separately, the conservative Thomas Fordham Institute has assembled all-star, cross-ideological backing for “weighted school funding,” whereby federal, state and local school money would follow children into the classroom and be allocated more on the basis of socioeconomic need.
Besides the chamber and Fordham initiatives, I ran into compelling anecdotal evidence last week in Aspen, Colo., that American elites are fed up with the dismal status quo in education.
A star figure at the second annual Aspen Institute Ideas Festival – attended by several hundred, mainly liberal intellectual and financial glitterati – was Joel Klein, the former Clinton aide who is now chancellor of New York City public schools.
Klein made a riveting case that teachers-union contracts are the main obstacle to improving urban education.
“The contract protects the interests of adults at the expense of kids,” he told a rapt audience, describing how it bars pay differentials based on student performance and service in difficult schools; makes it impossible for principals to fire underperforming teachers; and allows teachers to choose their own professional development tracks, regardless of supply-and-demand needs, such as those for more math and science teachers.
The U.S. chamber initiative clearly is targeted at the teachers unions, although chamber President Thomas Donohue is approaching the schools more gently than in his aggressive campaigns against the trial-lawyer lobby on tort reform.
The nation’s foremost business lobby has been ranking the states’ legal climates, taking out full-page ads headlined “Please Don’t Feed the Trial Lawyers” and working for tort reform at the state and national level.
Over the past two years, the chamber has scored notable victories in former “jackpot jurisdictions” such as those in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. It also won class-action reform in Congress.
But instead of ranking the states on education, which local chambers feared would scare away investment and might be perceived as racist, the chamber plans to issue “report cards.”
The criteria still are being worked out, said project director Arthur Rothkopf, but may include dropout rates, student test scores, alternative certification, rigor of state standards, merit pay and teacher quality.
“We’re going to look at those people who are impediments to the system,” Donohue told me in an interview. “And it’s not just the teachers. It’s the school boards who hire superintendents but don’t give them authority, put the money into bureaucracy instead of the classroom and don’t have high standards.”
At the same time, he said, “teachers unions in many communities have made it very difficult to change the school structure, the school curriculum, school hours, school management, the pay system. What we need here is a collaborative effort. We need the school boards and teachers unions to support strong superintendents and strong principals.”
“I want this first to be a friendly effort,” he said. “We want to get to the officials of government, the citizens of the state and the parents of the children. And we want them to look at how they are doing in preparing their children for the future. We want to do that in a collaborative, friendly way and recommend things that people can improve without talking about more money, which in some places may be needed. But there is a lot of money around.”
The Fordham initiative, headlined by former Republican Education secretaries William Bennett and Rod Paige, plus Democrats Podesta and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, calls for a transformation in the way school funding is allocated.
“Buildings, programs and staff positions are not funded – kids are,” the Fordham Institute proposed in a report issued last month and signed by more than 70 bipartisan education experts, though no union officials.
The report proposed that funding from all levels “follow every student to whatever public school he or she attends,” that the amount “vary according to the students’ needs” and that funding “arrive at schools as real dollars that can be spent flexibly, with accountability gauged by results rather than inputs, programs or activities.”
Since the 1983 “Nation At Risk” report, endless efforts have been made to improve U.S. education, culminating in bipartisan agreement in 2001 on President Bush’s No Child Left Behind plan. But test scores still lag, and one-third of all students (and 60 percent of minorities) fail to graduate from high school.
At Aspen, Wendy Kopp, founder of the nationally celebrated Teach for America volunteer program, said teacher quality and school leadership are far more important than money in determining student success.
Yet it’s hard to attract highest-quality students into the teaching profession – and keep them – when starting pay is only $47,000 in New York and $27,000 in Cleveland. Clearly, teachers ought to be paid more – and get fired if they don’t perform, just like people in other professions.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
Copyright 2006, Roll Call Newspaper
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