A staggering turnabout in the politics of education is playing out in the U.S. Congress and in states like Louisiana, where once-widespread agreement on accountability is now in danger because of an odd alliance of teachers unions and ultraconservatives of the GOP.
Here’s the statement we agree with: “We cannot tolerate continued indifference to the lowest performing schools, achievement gaps that let some students fall behind, or high schools where huge numbers of students never make it to graduation.”
That’s from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was on the losing side of key votes during the Senate’s deliberations on a new federal education bill.
Duncan’s language is harsh, as it might be seen as a slam at the teachers unions — who were big supporters of his boss, President Barack Obama — as well as Republican leaders such as U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who pushed the new education bill.
It is Alexander and many Republican senators who favor increased “local control” over education, which in this country is almost entirely locally controlled already. Alexander, who had a strong record as a pro-education governor of his home state, now criticizes Duncan for running a “national school board” at his department — even as Duncan has granted waiver after waiver for states under the accountability bill originally pushed by President George W. Bush.
It’s like two teams constantly swapping jerseys on the field. The spectators are confused, and that’s no accident.
What happened to the broad consensus on accountability? Politics, and catchphrases like “local control” have now been adopted by the Republican right and the teachers-union left to undermine standards-based testing.
Look at the criticism of the Common Core academic standards, falsely stigmatized as a “federal takeover” of Louisiana schools by Gov. Bobby Jindal. At the same time, union-backed lawmakers like state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the Democratic candidate for governor, join with school boards and other groups to push back against high-stakes testing.
Two other Republican candidates for governor — David Vitter, a U.S. senator, and Scott Angelle, a longtime state official — also favor selling out the accountability standards, a natural outgrowth of the long-term strategy of raising the academic bar in Louisiana classrooms to benefit Louisiana children. In fact, Vitter once was for Common Core; Angelle was a loyal supporter of Jindal when the governor backed Common Core.
Only Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, also a Republican, has staunchly favored the only practical path toward better school outcomes: a Common Core-based set of academic standards backed up by meaningful student testing.
Even when there is good news about educational progress, it’s greeted with caveats based on the new politics: In an email message about a rise in ACT test scores, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association praised progress but at the same time said there is an over-emphasis on test preparation in high school, to the detriment of other subjects.
This reflects a nostalgia for the days of yore, when all the conditions that Arne Duncan decried above were the standard operating procedure.
Critics of accountability are not exactly in alliance, but for now believe themselves to have a common enemy. People wanting measurable progress in taxpayer-funded schools ought to beware of such a coalition.