Bursting the Dam


October 25, 2010

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Why the Next 24 Months Are Critical for Education Reform Politics


It is no secret that most of the efforts to reform K-12 public education systems in the last quarter century have been stymied by political gridlock. Although education pioneers like Teach For America and KIPP have demonstrated the tremendous potential impact of innovation, special interests (primarily but not limited to teachers unions) have built up symbiotic relationships with elected officials to the point that they are able to assert de facto veto power over the kinds of changes which could fundamentally alter the way education is delivered in our communities.

Teachers unions and other interests were wise to build this powerbase. Their leaders understood long ago that the $500 billion public education industry is inherently political and that the ability to impact political decisions at all levels of government is the most efficient way to control their destiny.

Education reformers were slow to realize that politics mattered so much, but have aggressively moved to change the political calculation. In the last three years, Democrats for Education Reform alone has pumped more than $17 million into political advocacy at the federal, state and local levels. Alumni of programs like Teach For America are beginning to run for office. Reformers have assumed positions of influence at the federal and state levels of government.


We’re closer than we’ve ever been to bursting the dam that has prevented progress in K-12 education. To be sure, since the 1983 release of the federal report A Nation At Risk, there have been small but valuable political fissures in the dam. Some school boards have tipped briefly in favor of reformers, some governors have made progress with raising standards, etc. but the dam itself has remained strong enough to stop widespread reform.

The 2008 election of President Barack Obama created unprecedented political conditions, which now make fundamental reform of public education a possibility. The first-ever Democratic president elected without significant support of teachers unions (the American Federation of Teachers, which backed Hillary Clinton early on, spent millions trying to knock Obama off the ballot), Obama has governed with unusual credibility and freedom.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s federal “Race To The Top” (RTTT) competition produced more simultaneous fissures in the dam than we’ve ever seen. Cash-strapped state legislatures, hoping to win a chunk of nearly $5 billion in federal prizes, passed more education reform legislation in eight months than they had in the previous eight years. Reform in exchange for dollars became the new mantra, and the status quo – desperate to avoid widespread teacher layoffs – found itself uncharacteristically nullified in the political process. (Union leaders were forced to choose whether they wanted layoffs or not – with these changes being the price of additional federal funding.)


Each of these fissures in the dam is having an impact locally. Collectively, they are starting to swing the balance of power in education. For the first time, dam is weak and ready to burst.

In the aftermath of some of these 2010 reform battles, elections will determine whether this wave of reform is politically sustainable. Leaders who supported reform must be protected, or the old (and highly effective) storyline will emerge once again: Promote education reform at your own political peril. Recent Democratic primaries have proven that defenders of the status quo still have considerable firepower. In Washington DC, these interests unseated Mayor Adrian Fenty, one of the country’s most outspoken reformers. And, of the countless individual legislators targeted because they helped to negotiate their states’ RTTT applications, way too many were felled.

These losses don’t spell the end for education reform; the movement has way too much momentum. But if we can’t continue to build momentum and push through this era when political martyrdom is all too commonplace, there’s a real risk that all our public policy gains will simply roll back.

Whether or not the modern era of education reform is ultimately successful will, in large part, come down to whether or not we can continue to influence the political power structure. Continued success in the political arena in 2010 and 2011 – at a time when difficult local and state budgets will continue to force some tough discussions on education policy – have the potential to burst the dam once and for all.

This is it. By working together to clear the political obstruction that has slowed education reform so predictably over the last 25 years, we can make way for the pragmatic educators who are doing the hard work toward closing the achievement gap.

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