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During the nation's back-to-school season, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been touring states in a bus to "highlight the champions of reform."

At one stop, where he spoke to an audience of parents at a Nashville, Tenn., middle school, he challenged the National PTA, according to reporters for Education Week, to "make education a presidential campaign issue."

Good idea. But when the secretary offered to the audience an example of an ideal candidate, he pointed to a Republican.

"Duncan pointed out that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is one of the few politicians who has followed through on promises of being 'the education candidate,'" reported Lauren Camera.

Sadly, there are too few leaders in the Democratic Party who would qualify as education champions. But there is one very clear example. Not only is he a Democrat, but he is an unabashed progressive. And if Arne Duncan really wants to find politicians who "walk the walk" of real education reform, he can find an example of authentic progress coming not from Republicans, but from the left wing of his own party.

But first to dispense with the Haslam-hysteria that has overcome the Secretary.

Haslam Is No Education Hero

Duncan's proof of Haslam's supposed accomplishments and ability to "walk the walk" (Duncan's words) of education progress is the "state's recent academic gains. Tennessee's students made the biggest improvements in the country in math and reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Duncan said the increased scores are a direct result of the state implementing the Common Core State Standards."

Crediting Tennessee's NAEP scores to adoption of the Common Core is a huge leap of faith for sure, especially since the state has backed out of using Common Core-aligned tests created by one of the two national consortia endorsed by Duncan.

Also, Tennessee is chronically one of the nation's poorest performers on NAEP, so it had the most ground to gain in comparison to other states. And for every state Duncan can identify as a “top performer” on the NAEP assessment, one can find at least one state or more that has excelled in NAEP score gains without adopting the measures Tennessee has exemplified.

A more recent and comprehensive gauge on Tennessee student achievement – the state's own assessments – shows that student performance levels have barely budged at all, even decreasing slightly in grades 3-8 for reading.

Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker recently looked at Tennessee's support for education and found the state to be woefully lacking:

Tennessee is persistently among the lowest spending states in the country on its public education system.

Tennessee is not only one of the lowest spenders, but Tennessee spends less as a share of gross state product than most other states.

Tennessee has one of the largest income gaps between public school enrolled and private school enrolled children, and has among the higher shares of private school enrolled children.

Tennessee has relatively non-competitive teacher wages with respect to non-teacher wages.

Baker contended that regardless of how you feel about any of the "reform" measures Tennessee has adopted – Common Core, charter school expansion – "none can succeed in a system so substantially lacking in resources, and none can improve the equity of children’s outcomes unless there exists greater equity in availability of resources."

Speaking of charter schools, in addition to adopting Common Core, Tennessee's Governor Haslam has been eager to expand the presence of privately operated, even for-profit, charters. As education historian Diane Ravitch noted on her personal blog, "The Governor and the legislature enacted legislation in 2011 authorizing the Tennessee Virtual Academy, an online charter school run by K12 Inc."

K12, a for-profit company traded on Wall Street, is infamous for its bad reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the atrocious academic results it has achieved in Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, Tennessee state leaders are determined to inflict K12 schools on their own state's students, even though those schools continue to be "one of the lowest performing schools in the state," according to Ravitch.

So, sorry Arne, Governor Haslam is hardly an education "reform champion." What's even sadder than the fact that you think he is an example of one is the fact that there is a leader on the national stage who has championed real education reform. But you'll need to look further left to find him.

A Real Education Reform Rolls Out In New York City

While Duncan was touring Tennessee, praising Republicans, a genuine reformer was leading positive change in New York City.

As The New York Times reported, "Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected on promises of fighting income inequality, trumpeted the expansion of prekindergarten as a crucial step in leveling the playing field among children and declared it his first priority. His push to expand the system so rapidly, more than doubling it in eight months, is seen as a crucial test for his young administration. On Thursday, all that planning sprang to life as tens of thousands of 4-year-olds poured into freshly painted classrooms adorned with letters and numbers."

Now, that's real education progress! As the editorial board of the Times noted, "It’s worth pausing to note what an accomplishment this is. Fifty thousand is a small city’s worth of children, each getting a head start on a lifetime of learning. It is so many families saving the cost of day care or private prekindergarten. It is a milestone of education reform."

As I wrote earlier this year, "There is definitive evidence that expanded pre-k programs can benefit poor children socially, emotionally and academically." Research has shown that high quality education programs for three- and four-year-olds who can be viewed as being academically at risk can "produce strong economic returns ranging from about $4 per dollar invested to over $10 per dollar invested."

Expanding education opportunity to more little kids also happens to be very, very popular. As the new pre-K program was rolling out in New York City, a new survey from Gallup found, "Seven in 10 Americans say they favor using federal money to make sure high-quality preschool education programs are available for every child in America."

Even most Republicans (53 percent) are in favor of federal dollars going to early childhood education.

Despite all the interest, "access to high-quality early education opportunities for every child who needs them – especially for every child in low-income working families – remains elusive," as a report from the New America Foundation found this summer.

The hang-up has always been finding a way to pay for it. As folks at New America point out on their foundation's blog, funding for early childhood programs has become a new "third rail" in policy discussions. As more children living in poverty are added to waiting lists to get into programs like Head Start, politicians seem incapable of coming up with the money.

Mayor de Blasio is the exception. Not only did he make campaign promises to expand pre-k programs, but he has proven that a capable leader can make those promises reality. Of course there was resistance to his initial proposal, which was to find the money for pre-k in rich people's pockets.

As Sarah Jaffe reminded in Truthout, "Once elected, the mayor seemed to be a step behind Governor Cuomo when it came to negotiating in Albany. The struggle began shortly after he took office in January, and it seemed to reach a rather nasty peak in early March when Cuomo appeared at a pro-charter schools rally held in Albany by charter school entrepreneur Eva Moskowitz on the same day as de Blasio's rally for his pre-K plan."

Then came a deal – "the result of de Blasio's heavy lobbying," according to Jaffe – with $340 million in the budget for a statewide pre-K program. The Times agreed, writing in its editorial, "Mr. de Blasio’s dogged lobbying worked."

Noted WNYC on its School Book blog, "The mayor said there were no glitches on the first day of the 2014-15 school year," despite the negotiating tactics from the governor that delayed money until April and made the City ramp up its program in less than six months' notice."

De Blasio's determination in the face of resistance should be held up as an example to follow across the country.

In addition to championing universal access to pre-k, his administration opened after-school programs to more than 70,000 middle-school children. And instead of reflexively opting for more unproven charter schools, he recently outlined a plan to "set a 'clear standard' for charter schools" that includes "how they serve high-needs students, their student retention rates, and even how much they 'teach to the test.'”

This is what real education reform looks like: increasing children's opportunity to learn and demanding authentic accountability from schools, not mere test scores.

Recognizing Real Progress

Mayor de Blasio's accomplishments in New York City make Secretary Duncan's praise for Governor Haslam look all the more ludicrous. In fact, when Haslam was recently given opportunities to support expanded access to pre-k, he balked.

As Chalkbeat Tennessee recently reported, "Both of Tennessee’s largest school districts, in Nashville and Memphis, are not only pushing to expand pre-K, but to also make it more effective." Where is Haslam's support for this effort? He is waiting for a study, "according to a spokesman."

While we've yet to see any recognition of de Blasio's achievement coming from the Department of Education, others are noticing.

Next month, the progressive group Campaign for America's Future (disclosure: a partner of the Education Opportunity Network) will honor de Blasio – along with Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Lee Saunders, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – as "progressive champions."

Perhaps Secretary Duncan will consider attending.

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