The vote counting isn’t completely over, but we woke up this morning with a different House of Representatives. Unlike the 111th Congress–which officially runs until January 3, 2011–the 112th is likely to be controlled by a Republican majority. With the Democrats retaining control of the Senate, we’re back to gridlock in Washington. Other than a slowdown in congressional activity (most Americans seem to be unaware that the 111th Congress was one of the most productive ones in the last 50 years), what will it mean for education?
First, Kevin is right: it will not mean an end to the Department of Education, as some Tea Party candidates have advocated. There’s a reason no state has ever opted out of No Child Left Behind: for all the moaning about an over-reach of federal authority and an unfunded mandate, states need the money. That’s as true now as ever.
What we will get is a Congress that needs to do something that’s broadly popular*. There’s not likely to be much of a consensus on cap-and-trade or immigration, and health care repeal won’t get past the Senate or President Obama’s veto pen. Tax policy probably needs to get addressed, but that won’t make anyone happy. Education is one area where everyone could declare an actual, positive win.
What is fairly clear at this point is that the next Congress will be interested in a more humble approach to federal policy. What’s less well understood is that Obama’s Blueprint for ESEA Reauthorization suits the current political climate remarkably well.
Obama’s Blueprint, released last March, has no big new mandate. If anything, it makes a purposeful step back from No Child Left Behind by acknowledging the federal government cannot require states to fix the one-third of schools that have been identified as not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress. It’s just not feasible. Instead, the Obama Blueprint asks states to really focus on repairing a smaller, more manageable number of persistently low-performing schools identified by the states themselves.
The Obama Blueprint asks for greater transparency around teacher and principal effectiveness, requires states to measure the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs, and would compel states to publicly report data on college enrollment and remediation rates by high school. None of these new data elements are paired with any stronger accountability than a “plan” to address any inequities that are revealed. Most states have these data capabilities already; it’s just a matter of putting them to use.
Some conservative leaders have criticized the plan for encouraging participation in the Common Core Standards Initiative, thereby limiting state rights around curricula, but that’s a fundamental misreading of the Blueprint. The Blueprint would not penalize any state choosing to keep their own standards. States may either join the Common Core or, “upgrade their existing standards, working with their 4-year public university system to certify that mastery of the standards ensures that a student will not need to take remedial coursework upon admission to a postsecondary institution in the system.” This is an especially important distinction in today’s political climate, particularly as potential presidential candidates make it into an issue.
There are pieces of the Obama Blueprint that certain groups won’t like–the anti-testing crowd won’t like that none of the testing requirements would be repealed, civil rights groups may not like a lesser focus on important sub-groups of students in schools deemed OK overall, and the teachers unions may not like the new teacher effectiveness or public transparency elements–but all in all it holds up remarkably well for the changing political landscape.
*I could be wrong about all this, and maybe the 112th Congress will be content to fight little battles that make the other side take bad votes and make everyone in Washington look bad. Those things will probably happen regardless, but I’m guessing the voters will ask Congress to accomplish something affirmative as well.