Coming in over the transom this week, the ever-vigilant bloggers at Education Week's Politics K-12 who were camped out at hearings for the House Education and the Workforce Committee tweeted out that Rep. Judy Biggert from Illinois, "a moderate Republican," is "worried" that the Obama administration's signature education policy, Race to the Top, "is taking money away from homeless kids."
The good Congresswoman had to pioneer into territory that Republicans rarely ever inhabit to come up with this one. But we are, after all, in an election season. Republicans are on the hunt for whatever they can use to damage President Obama in particular and Democrats in general. And there's growing evidence that the Obama administration's education policies will be a target of the right wing.
The Right Wing Revs Up Its Attack Machine
Indeed, at the Congressional hearing cited above, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was in attendance to defend his program's accomplishments, got "hammered" for "continuing to pump money into competitive programs" like Race to the Top. Since when are Republicans against competition?
Tellingly, reauthorization of the federal government's chief education policy, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is at a complete and utter stalemate.
President Obama and Republican governors are clearly at odds on spending levels for education. And the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan that just passed the House would likely produce "an 18 percent cut to education funding" curtailing the Democrat-controlled federal government's outlay for education.
The rallying cry among the right wing is to redefine "federal" -- including "federal teachers unions" -- as a pejorative. And Republican presidential candidates are openly condemning the federal government's role in education, largely based on broad dislike of No Child Left Behind -- which was enacted in a Republican administration.
Conservative Beltway think tank operatives such the American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess have cast serious doubts about key Obama education initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards, which Hess claimed to resemble "a federally-inspired, politicized project."
As Democratic Rep. George Miller recently lamented, again in the pages of Education Week, "We've never had education dragged into this vortex. Education has always been above it. Now we find ourselves sitting in a partisan firefight."
Actually, partisan differences over education policy are likely a good thing, as it may be a sign of the DC crowd turning its back on the flawed logic of adopting centrism for centrism's sake. But if this is a "firefight," it's unclear what the Democrats are packing.
Democrats Show Up At A "Firefight" With What . . ?
It doesn't help Democrats that most of what the Obama administration is pushing for education is producing some really negative press on the ground. Earlier this week, reporters with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution presented a series of articles documenting a nationwide cheating scandal that calls into question the federal government's follow-up of top-down mandates on school accountability.
The newspaper's investigation "analyzed test results for 69,000 public schools and found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems from coast to coast." The reporters note that the suspect results are particularly prone to appear in schools that "are grappling with urban blight and poverty" -- the schools that "NCLB was supposed to fix." And they lay much of the blame for the cheating on "way too much pressure" being put on schools to comply with testing mandates.
Secretary Duncan, for his part, continues to struggle to distance his program from the widely reviled NCLB. He maintains that Race to the Top and other approachesare not an extension of the Bush administration's now unpopular edicts. But starting a political argument by explaining what you "are not like" is hardly firm ground.
Teachers, for instance, are not persuaded of the Secretary's good intentions. There is increasing evidence that there is very little teacher support for Obama school reform strategies among teachers -- especially among experienced teachers.
Only 7 percent of teachers believe standardized tests that are being pushed by Sec. Duncan are essential to good education. Many teachers report having to spend inordinate amounts of time -- over half their classroom time in some places -- on preparing for and administering tests, and they're understandably resentful of more time taken away from real instruction.
The backlash against testing is undoubtedly growing. Parents and public education advocates have started numerous "opt out" movements and actions. And now school boards in over 190 districts across the state of Texas are speaking out against the over-emphasis on testing in public schools.
Another factor that makes the Obama administration's reliance on standardized tests increasingly unpopular is the insistence on evaluating teachers based on the scores -- one of the qualifications for receiving federal grant money. The score-based evaluations are wildly unreliable and are leading to more and more cases of good teachers being treated very badly.
Sometimes, even whole schools that are well liked and supported in their communities are being shut down due to some poor test results that can hardly be attributed to the school's practices.
Due to the growing resentment toward testing and its applications, and other factors, an annual survey of teachers, MetLife’s Survey of the American Teacher, recently found that teachers’ job satisfaction is the lowest it's been in 20 years.
No doubt, Republican politicians will not lose any sleep over the growing dissatisfaction among teachers and parents with the Obama administration's education policies. What they will do is use it as a club to beat Democratic candidates over the head about the failure of federal education policies.
Democrats Are Following A Republican Playbook
The Republican strategy is quite clear. This week, my colleague Richard (RJ) Eskow laid it out.
Eskow observed how the dynamic of the Republican attack machine works during election season. In his commentary at ourfuture.org, he explained how right-wing agitation related to the Supreme Court hearings on the individual insurance mandate takes the peculiar turn of conservatives "viciously attacking" ideas, like mandated health insurance, that were originally developed in "right-wing think tanks."
This is the exact same strategy right-wing Republicans (now the only kind) are using with education policy. Now that ideas for education policy that were conceived primarily by right wing think tanks -- standards, NCLB, high-stakes testing -- are frimly in place, thanks in part to the cooperation of Democrats, they are now the exact points Republicans are using to attack Democrats.
Of course, as Eskow explained, "that's what you get" for compromising with the Right. Democrats continue to hew their views to right-wing proposals based on the worship of "bipartisanship." And then they get attacked for supporting the very ideas proposed by conservatives.
It's no sure thing that education will be a prominent issue in the upcoming elections. It's usually not. But with popular perceptions of the economy improving, Republicans will be searching for new fodder to stoke the assault guns.
While the Obama administration has more resources on hand to weather the assault, down-ticket Democrats have to be more careful. The right thing is for liberals to "act like liberals again" and return to insistence on education policies that are grounded in the individual well-being of students rather than standards, and justice and fairness rather than a faulty accountability tied to inaccurate measures.
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