Toxic Combination

Originally appeared in The New Republic

Also from ES | April 12, 2011

For years, teachers unions have claimed that education reformers are mounting a "war on teachers." Now, in the Midwest and Republican-dominated states across the country, we are witnessing what a war on teachers really looks like. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s nuclear assault on public employees' collective bargaining and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's overheated claims that teacher pensions are bankrupting the state reveal a Republican Party bent on using its current electoral advantage to permanently cripple unions nationwide.

Yet, at the same time, Republicans in Washington are embracing the worst elements of the teachers unions' national education agenda, by insisting that the federal government should have a limited, possibly nonexistent, role in school policy. The result of what's happening at the state and federal levels could be a toxic combination for students and reverse years of hard-won education reform.

For the past decade, Republican education policy has been synonymous with George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Brokered by liberal stalwart Ted Kennedy and then-House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner in 2001, the law combined a tough-minded approach to accountability that appealed to conservatives with new funding for poor children supported by progressives. While NCLB has serious flaws, it has nonetheless brought overdue attention to the plight of low-income and minority students and helped push some of the nation’s worst public schools to improve. (Jonathan Cohn recently wrote about the successes of NCLB for The New Republic.)

NCLB is now overdue for reauthorization by Congress, and supporters had expected incremental improvements to the testing and accountability rules, along with fresh progress on reforming the teaching profession. What they hadn't counted on was the accelerating radicalization of the national Republican Party. In the last year, Republican enthusiasm for education reform on Capitol Hill has evaporated in the face of the Tea Party movement’s extreme anti-federalism. As the law moves to closed-door negotiations, Republicans are increasingly opposing any and all federal education policies, regardless of merit, on the grounds that education is inherently a state and local concern.

In place of NCLB, the party is regressing to Republican education policy circa 1981, when Ronald Reagan called for instituting national school vouchers and abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. While neither of those things will actually happen, there is increasing danger of a compromise whereby the federal government continues to disburse billions of dollars to local schools but plays no meaningful role in determining how—or how well—that money is spent. States might no longer be required to test students annually or intervene when schools persistently fail to help students learn. Progress on using federal dollars to change the way teachers are evaluated, hired, and paid would grind to halt.

This dovetails exactly with the aims of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union, which hated NCLB from the beginning. In 2001, the union couldn't overcome bipartisan support from congressional leaders, reform-minded governors, business leaders eager to hire well-educated workers, and civil rights advocates who saw NCLB as a natural extension of Brown v. Board. Today, the section of the NEA's website devoted to NCLB reauthorization explicitly criticizes the Obama administration for supporting policies that use "test scores as a means of evaluating and categorizing schools and teachers"—the foundation of standards-based reform.

The smaller but influential American Federation of Teachers has often engaged, if erratically, with the standards movement. Some local unions have also been willing supporters of reform. But the NEA is the 800-pound gorilla. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has accused the Obama administration of "scapegoating" teachers and insists that issues like teacher pay be left at the local level. Van Roekel’s predecessor, Reg Weaver, called NCLB a "cruel hoax" and spearheaded a lawsuit designed to gut the law's annual testing and accountability provisions.

Now, whether they realize it or not, Republicans in Congress are trying to grant the NEA's wish by rolling back decades of bi-partisan education reform. As Michael Petrilli, a former Bush administration education official and current vice president of the right-leaning Fordham Institute, puts it, "the local control faction of the Republican party and the anti-accountability wing of the Democratic party are converging."

How does this interact with what's happening in the states? Republican governors' main goal is to strip unions of their economic and political power at the state level, preventing them from supporting Democrats in elections and fighting for the progressive cause on taxation, business regulation, and fair education funding. Emasculated teachers unions can still play a major role in negotiating work rules and personnel practices at the local level, as well as influencing local school board elections where voter turnout is often low. When it comes to reform, however, they will be in no mood to make concessions. (Which is doubly unfortunate, given that, since NCLB was enacted, some unions have steadily retreated on a host of key issues, ranging from tying teachers pay to their performance and eliminating tenure provisions to reforming "Last In, First Out" layoff policies and closing chronically low-performing schools.) And then, if Republicans supporting local control in Congress have their way, there will be little if any federal policy remaining to ensure otherwise.

What is most tragic is that, once upon a time, this devastating scenario didn't seem likely. Indeed, the about-face among key Hill Republicans on education has been striking. Consider Senator Lamar Alexander, who pioneered the use of annual school testing when he was governor of Tennessee in the 1980s and continued pushing the standards-based reform agenda as President George H. W. Bush's Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. Today, he is working with Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi to lead Republican negotiations on the new version of NCLB. Yet all indications now are that Alexander has largely abandoned his lifetime of education reform work in the face of the new anti-federal mood.

The same is true for Speaker of the House Boehner. He once spoke movingly about the virtues of NCLB, calling it "an effort to end decades of failed federal education policy that allowed billions of taxpayer dollars to be spent without insisting on results for students" But that was before Boehner had to corral a caucus full of Tea Party-backed freshmen. When asked about the Speaker's role in sustaining the landmark law he was integral in writing, a spokesperson offered no comment other than deferring to Education Committee Chairman John Kline of Minnesota.

Kline is, by all accounts, not a crazy person when it comes to education. But he leads a committee whose members include North Carolina's Virginia Foxx, who is noted for bizarre statements on the House floor and has publicly asserted that federal funding for education is unconstitutional. (Foxx chairs the subcommittee on higher education.) Other committee members include Tim Walberg of Michigan and Joe Heck of Nevada, both of whom support abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. The larger Republican caucus appears to have little interest in or knowledge of education—the word does not appear in the Republican "Pledge to America." Caught between rationality and the House Republican caucus, Kline has offered virtually no details of his plan for NCLB, other than support for "innovation" at the state level. This is code for "letting states do whatever they want."

Letting states do what they want, of course, is exactly what the NEA would prefer; indeed, Van Roekel has said the NEA "generally supports local control of public schools." But countering the worst manifestations of that idea, which are detrimental in particular to poor and minority students, has been the center of federal education policy for over half a century. It took the Supreme Court and the Justice Department to end de jure school segregation and the 101st Airborne Division to integrate Little Rock Central High. In the 1970s, Congress passed what became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring schools to stop neglecting students with disabilities. The 1994 version of NCLB required states to give all students access to common standards and tests. NCLB as we know it made states actually dosomething meaningful when the tests revealed widespread failure.

Every step of the way, opponents have cried for states' rights and local control, but cooler heads have prevailed, because re-fracturing education policy among thousands of local municipalities, many poor and badly governed, is a recipe for permanent inequality. Now, though, grinding progress on education reform is at risk of coming to a complete halt, as Republicans in Congress unwittingly make common cause with same teachers’ unions their state counterparts are trying to destroy.

More in ESEA / No Child Left Behind