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The Reason for the Phony Consensus About School 'Reform'

Dear Deborah,

Your last column was simply terrific! First, I was glad to see your reference to Russ Whitehurst's piece, in which he questioned whether Congress had authorized the Obama administration's Race to the Top. Second, I was heartened by your careful dissection of the phony "consensus" that now captivates elected officials and the media.

As it happens, these are issues that I have been discussing for months. When I spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on March 11, I asked my audience of Washington insiders the very question that Russ Whitehurst now raises: How is it possible that the Obama administration can spend $5 billion without congressional hearings and congressional authorization? No one answered my question. When I worked in the U.S. Department of Education in 1991-1993, my agency (the Office of Educational Research and Improvement) had the department's largest pot of discretionary dollars, and it was only about $10 million. Congress was extremely vigilant in insisting that every dollar appropriated could be spent only for authorized programs.

In the case of Race to the Top, the administration determined its priorities without consulting Congress. It now has $5 billion to dangle in front of the states to persuade them to change their laws and their policies. Russ Whitehurst is disturbed by RTTT even though he agrees with the policies it promotes. Like Russ, I am disturbed that the administration has done an end run around Congress, but I am also concerned that RTTT is warping state decision-making, and I dislike the policies it promotes.

I believe that 10 years from now RTTT will be widely recognized as a colossal waste of federal money that eroded state control of education and compelled cash-hungry states to embark on programs that did not improve education. We may never be able to undo the damage to children, schools, teachers, public education, and federalism now being done in the name of "reform."

As for the so-called "consensus," it is purely a fiction manufactured by elite opinion-makers, think tanks, and big foundations, the ones I describe in my book as "the billionaire boys' club." All we need, say the cheerleaders for the consensus, is more private management of public schools and more use of test scores to evaluate and reward teachers. Notice that the purveyors of this wrong-headed consensus never point to any other nation as a model. And no wonder: there is none. We are embarked on a radical scheme to deconstruct our public education system, to de-professionalize teaching and supervision, and to turn teachers into data-obsessed functionaries.

The real reason for the consensus is that the Obama administration has embraced the agenda of the George W. Bush administration. For many decades, the Democratic national agenda was equity: programs intended to equalize funding for the districts and schools serving the poorest students. Since the election of Ronald Reagan, the Republican agenda was choice and accountability (and Republicans were always opposed to federal interference in state and local decision-making).

Today, Race to the Top is based on choice and accountability with nary a nod to equity (the nature of a "race to the top" implies that a few will win, and most will lose the race). No wonder Education Secretary Arne Duncan was able to barnstorm the country in tandem with former Speaker Newt Gingrich; no wonder the former chairman of the Republican National Committee wrote a laudatory article about the Obama education agenda in The Washington Post: Lots more choice and accountability! Looks just like the Republican agenda.

So, what happened to the Democratic agenda? Lost, stolen, strayed, forgotten, misplaced? I don't need to ask about the Republicans' loss of memory about federalism; even Republican governors have their hands eagerly outstretched in hopes of getting federal dollars in a time of economic crisis.

Diane

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