A Battle Begun, Not Won
Many education reformers are feeling optimistic these days, willing to claim that they have won the war of ideas and that all that remains is mopping up a few leftover messes and working out the details of the new education regime that already exists in their minds. Arkansas professor Jay Greene has declared flat-out victory, claiming the teachers unions have become indistinguishable from the tobacco industry, determined to defend turf that is now utterly indefensible.
Giving credit where it's due, the reform campaign has had successes. Prodded by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and other veteran private-sector reformers, the Obama administration has lent unexpectedly forceful support to such causes as common standards, better assessments, charter schools, merit pay, refurbished teacher preparation, and the removal of ineffective instructors. A left-leaning celebrity filmmaker has entreated viewers of Waiting for "Superman" to ponder the sad reality that poor students cannot attend good schools without winning a lottery in which the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against them.
The new federal initiative, Race to the Top, inspired statutory changes in a dozen states. Hundreds of millions of philanthropic and federal dollars are flooding toward such, national organizations as KIPP and Teach For America as well as to local and state-specific ventures in a hundred places. A brigade of governors, led by New Jersey's Chris Christie and Indiana's Mitch Daniels, has pressed a wide school-reform agenda and many state legislators--including Democrats in places like Colorado--are participating in the process. In New York City, the mayor is replacing one reform-minded outsider, Joel Klein, with another, Cathleen Black, despite strenuous union maneuvers to block the appointment. Even the defeat of District of Columbia mayor Adrian Fenty, who backed schools chancellor Michelle Rhee's dramatic efforts to reboot public education in the nation's capital, has not proven too dispiriting. Rhee was too strident, it is said; a subtler, more sophisticated approach may still work. Meanwhile, she negotiated a path-breaking contract.
In state after state, the teachers unions are indeed besieged on multiple fronts. The momentum is with the reformers. So say some.
Alas, we're not so sanguine. It's way, way too early to declare victory. Atop the cliffs and bastions that reformers are attacking, the opposition has plenty of weapons with which to hold its territory.
For this is no single war and nothing can be done at the national level to win it. Most of the crucial decisions about how U.S. schools run and who teaches what to whom in which classrooms are still made in 14,000 semi-autonomous school districts, nearly all of them run by locally elected school boards, off en with campaign dollars supplied by those with whom they negotiate collectively, and managed by professional superintendents, trained in colleges of education and socialized over the years into the prevailing culture of public education.
That culture is in no way reform-minded. It believes that educators know best, that elected school boards are the embodiment of democracy in action, that colleges of education are the path to true professionalism, that collective bargaining is necessary to protect teacher rights, and that any failings visible in today's schools, teachers, and students are either the fault of heedless parents or the consequence of incompetent administrators and stingy taxpayers.
Nor is it just at the local level that vested interests are entrenched. In corridors and committee rooms of state legislatures, lobbyists and campaign contributors also safeguard the interests of employees and vendors. Teachers unions are still the number-one source of political contributions and, in places like California and Minnesota, they appear stronger than either political party. …