Education Secretary Arne Duncan kicked off the new year with an op-ed in the Washington Post today, calling for a bipartisan commitment to education reform. The Secretary wants Congress to pass a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“No Child Left Behind”), accurately noting that “few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform.” Indeed, the administration’s legislative blueprint in this area runs right down the political center and would likely be supported broadly by voters.
And yet, conventional wisdom in education circles is that political forces will prevent Congressional action.
Here’s how the thinking goes: Republicans don’t want to hand the Obama administration a legislative win--particularly one that can be sold as a pragmatic, moderate accomplishment. Furthermore, on the right, the Tea Party will push a firmer states’ rights agenda that is anathema to broad federal regulation. And on the left, the beleaguered teachers’ unions will push hard against accountability standards rooted in student tests. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
Indeed, if you want a snapshot of why moderate centrist legislation is so challenging today, just look at the online reader comments to Duncan’s piece. By the end of the rants, I wasn’t sure whether Duncan is a closet right-winger selling out the teachers and kids to corporate interests, or whether he is a big government socialist seeking to micro-manage your child’s daily life from Washington.
Education policy is a funny field, though, and I see a path to Secretary Duncan’s vision despite all the partisan bluster. First of all, the relevant committee chairs and ranking members (Tom Harkin and Michael Enzi in the Senate, John Kline and George Miller in the House) are experienced pros with a lot of common ground between them on public education issues. Each of them is more moderate than the most ardent special interest constituents in their parties. And since 2012 is a great unknown, each is well-positioned to sell compromise to the far right and the far left; there are huge risks in waiting for both parties.
With a clear centrist path, mutual disdain for the current No Child Left Behind mandates, and leadership from the administration, this should get done. At this point, the biggest barrier to success isn’t Congress--it’s our cynicism about Congress. If we assume and demand that Congress operates in the rational interests of the people, passing a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the ultimate no brainer.