Even with such big names as Hillary Clinton in President Barack Obama's cabinet, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has become the administration's biggest attraction. From appearing with singer John Legend to bring more black college students into teaching, to reliving his Australia basketball league days shooting hoops with Justin Bieber and other celebs at last month's NBA All-Star Weekend (and getting a shout-out from LeBron James to boot), Duncan has helped make school reform as major a topic of discussion in pop culture as it is in the hallways of Beltway think tanks.
Duncan has been the most successful of Obama's appointees. Thanks to his efforts, Obama's bully pulpit and the $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative, Duncan has even found a way to get states such as California and New York to expand charter schools and bring some form of private-sector style performance management to the teaching profession. At the same time, he has managed to keep at bay (and occasionally, nudge into his corner) defenders of traditional public education such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, with spending sprees such as the $10 billion Edujobs bailout package.
But like much of the Obama administration these days, Duncan faces a struggle in advancing his agenda. With the president looking to win re-election, and the need to satisfy the school reformers and teachers unions within the Democratic Party, Duncan isn't getting any help in making his plans a reality.
His effort last month in Denver to showcase the idea that reform-minded school districts and teachers unions can work together was hobbled when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the D.C. Public Schools -- each of which is fiercely battling AFT locals -- pulled out of the event; not even officials from Duncan's former employer, Chicago's public school system, showed up. The event's message went to dust once NEA's Wisconsin affiliate teamed up with other public-sector unions to battle Gov. Scott Walker's efforts against collective bargaining and forced collection of union dues.
Duncan and Obama are now in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly oppose the weakening of teachers' union influence even as the administration's own reform agenda calls for exactly that. Declared Duncan this week in an interview: "You had a union that had been historically more intransigent, but was moving. You don't want to hit them with a hammer."
The administration's signature program, Race to the Top, sits on life support as the administration and congressional Republicans spar with each other over continuing resolutions and the 2011-2012 budget. A proposal to spend an additional $900 million on Race to the Top was essentially declared dead on arrival by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline. The stopgap measure Obama signed into law this week cuts out $18 million in subsidies to Teach For America, the alternative teacher training program whose alumni include former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and the founders of the KIPP chain of charter schools.
Meanwhile Duncan hopes to finally end the four-year-long stalemate over reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education policy law whose accountability provisions have been the bane of teachers unions and suburban districts. But it will be a struggle for the administration to win support for its version of the law from congressional Republicans and Democrats alike. The NEA and AFT, which want the entire law gutted, have no plans to make it easy for Duncan to get the law reauthorized; his own allies in the school reform movement -- who want to hold more schools accountable for student academic performance -- are also displeased with what the administration is proposing on paper.
Certainly Duncan could end up getting most of what Obama wants. In this week's interview he argued that there is plenty of bipartisan support for many of the elements in the administration's proposed reauthorization of No Child. He also declared that the NEA and AFT can't preserve the traditional system of defined-benefit pensions and seniority-based privileges that has made teaching the most lucrative profession in the public sector; the nation's education crisis, along with pressure from younger teachers less interested in tenure and annuities, is forcing the unions to slowly change their ways. Declares Duncan: "The countervailing pressure [against returning to the past] is that we need to get better results educationally."
But Duncan and Obama are facing the reality that short-term budget shortfalls -- along with the $1.4 billion in defined-benefit pension deficits and unfunded retiree teacher healthcare benefits -- are forcing the kind of confrontations that no longer allow for accommodation and compromise. The dotcom and housing booms of the past two decades allowed earlier generations of reformers (including Duncan) to pursue reforms and still dole out hefty pay raises to teachers. Edujobs and the federal stimulus also allowed states to avoid making many hard decisions. No longer. While abolishing collective bargaining will only slightly weaken NEA and AFT influence, it is to many the next logical step in overhauling how schools spend money and educate children.
The fact is that Duncan, Obama, and their fellow Democrat school reformers are partly responsible for fostering the conditions that have led to efforts by Walker and others to abolish collective bargaining. After all, it was big-city mayors, young professionals and urban families frustrated by dropout factories and the tolerance of incompetent teachers, who began openly challenging the NEA and AFT in the 1990s, first by starting alternative teacher training programs such as Teach For America, and then starting the first wave of charter schools and voucher programs. By 2002, mayors such as New York's Bloomberg and outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley stepped up the pressure on unions by taking over traditional school districts and battling them at the bargaining table and inside statehouses.
Duncan's own Race to the Top effort has amped up the conflict by spurring states to pass laws requiring the use of student test score data in evaluating teacher performance. Colorado, for example, went even further with a law which would end a veteran teacher's tenure (or lifetime employment status) if they performed poorly for two consecutive years. Race to the Top's impact continues as governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie push their own efforts to subject teachers to private sector-style performance management. It has also forced teachers union leaders such as AFT President Randi Weingarten offer half-measures in order to keep some part of the status quo in place.
As for No Child? Forget about it. While Senate Democrats are ready to draft a new version by Easter, nothing will be happening in the House for a while. The addition of 12 new Republicans to the House Education and the Workforce Committee means a lot of members getting up to speed on the law; the fact that many of them are more concerned about overturning Obama's healthcare reform plan and cutting budgets also puts No Child on the backburner.
Even if those obstacles were out of the way, little in the way of progress would happen. Kline's own plans to gut No Child face opposition from Republican governors (who used the law to advance their own reform measures) and likely, even from House Speaker John Boehner (who helped pass the law a decade ago). Divisions among Democrats also complicate matters. The likely impetus for any moves on No Child come from a rule that requires that districts must have all kids up to speed on reading and math by 2014 or face sanctions. But like the goal itself, the rule may never actually become reality.
Chances are Duncan would be better off quietly cheerleading what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere, and then taking credit for it. In short, pick a side in the latest round of the battle over reforming America's schools and stick with it. It may even win Obama some Republican votes.
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