Liam Kerr: Obama, education reform a Nixon-to-China moment

Saturday December 1, 2012


When it comes to education reform, Presi dent Obama has turned the tag "no-drama Oba ma" on its head. In fact, when it comes to K-12 education, the Obama administration has intentionally rocked the Dem ocratic boat by pushing aggressively for reforms that upset teachers unions -- a major segment of the traditional party power base.

The drama has at times turned ugly -- Secretary Arne Duncan was greeted with hisses at the annual meeting of the nation’s largest teachers union, and the head of the Chicago Teachers Union was forced to apologize for making fun of the secretary’s slight lisp.

The most upheaval has come from the administration’s program Race to the Top, which has significant turnaround influence with its series of competitive grants totaling $4 billion. Through it, dozens of states and hundreds of districts have pushed for changes to the status quo that benefit students. The most recent iteration focuses on school districts, to "support bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness."

The original Race To The Top challenge grant, targeting state-level reform, had a direct impact in Massachusetts. It motivated passage of the 2010 Act Relative to the Achieve ment Gap, which was bold enough to make Massachusetts a grant winner to the tune of $250 million.

But the genius of the Race to the Top approach is the way it forces engagement and even persuades local politicians to bypass programs that are, in the administration’s words, a "vehicle for maintenance of the status quo," while providing Democratic candidates and elected officials with political coverage.

Obama’s original Race to the Top legislation wound up doubling the number of high-performing charter schools in the lowest-achieving districts. Ra ther than being seen as a positive, the increase in charter schools was explicitly rejected in the Massachusetts Demo cratic Party platform the year before. Such strong reversals have occurred across the country, causing some to see Oba ma’s leadership on education reform as akin to a "Nixon-to-China" moment. Just as it took an ardently conservative U.S. president to thaw relations with China it takes a liberal Democratic president to take on teachers unions in pursuit of reforms.


Only a Democrat of Obama’s stature could prove that liberals can and should put children before adult interests in education policy. Around the country, Obama has created a new wave of progressive advocates pushing strong reforms to fix our broken education system.

Earlier this week, the federal Department of Education announced finalists for the district version of President Obama’s $4 billion Race to the Top competition. Pittsfield was not one of the 61 finalists named. It was not even one of the 360 who submitted an application.

The drama surrounding the missed opportunity for $20 million in federal grant money for Pittsfield Public Schools played itself out in The Berk shire Eagle recently when Supt. Gordon Noseworthy detailed the failure of the district to apply for the grant. He laid the blame squarely at the door of the United Educators of Pittsfield, which said it could not sign off on the application because it did not have adequate time to get input from members.

Noseworthy was echoing the frustrations of peers around the country. Earlier this year, a similar Obama initiative was bypassed at the other end of the commonwealth, as Boston Public Schools failed to reach an agreement with its union and lost out on the chance to win a $9 million grant.

Nevertheless, Pittsfield officials answered the Obama administration’s call to prioritize the children in the public education system. It is an example that the Democratic Party and the country as a whole should follow.

While a deal did not get done in time for Pittsfield students to benefit in the short term, such dialogue is progress toward giving students what they need to succeed.

With another four years of Obama’s leadership and indications that he will retain Secretary Duncan, we can ex pect more challenges to en trenched interests that obstruct reforms our children need.

Tension in states and districts will persist. The same movie will keep playing -- with more opportunities to co-star with President Obama in remaking our education system.

Liam Kerr is Massachusetts director of Democrats for Education Reform.


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