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Obama & Schooling: Two Fact Patterns

In recent weeks, some observers have repeatedly indicated surprise at big developments in edu-politics that should not have been surprising. Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott withdrew from CCSSO. Sec. Duncan's chest-thumping talk on conditional NCLB waivers provoked backlash in the commentariat and a smackdown by House Education Chair John Kline. Idaho told ED it's going to ignore elements of NCLB, basically asking, "What are you going to do about it, huh?" Despite Duncan's gambits and threats, even the most reality-resistant now acknowledge that NCLB/ESEA reauth is going nowhere until 2013. GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, at a New Hampshire town hall, offered up a convoluted blast at the Obama administration for trying to direct school curricula from Washington. Tea Party groups and Grover Norquist have expressed concerns about the Common Core.

All of these developments should've been largely predictable, but each has been accompanied by head-scratching among pundits and advocates who've protested, "But Republicans are supposed to like what Obama and Duncan are doing on education. What's going on?"

Here is what's going on. There are two distinct, mirror-image fact patterns that those on the right see when regarding Obama's efforts on education.

On the one hand, Republicans have embraced the President's support for charter schooling, merit pay, teacher accountability, and the like. The Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and other conservative luminaries have cheered Obama's strong words and Duncan's efforts on Race to the Top, charter schooling, and much else (frequently including the Common Core). This is fact pattern one.

On the other hand, the administration's K-12 efforts are viewed by many conservatives as just a couple more dots in a broader, troubling pattern. Critics see the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, Edujobs, the administration footprint on Common Core, and the like as part of a troubling Obama push to grow the role of Washington and boost government spending. Rather than "reform," those regarding fact pattern two see an ominous thread that links these measures to ARRA, health care reform, the auto bailouts, Frank-Dodd, the NLRB-Boeing dispute, proposed energy regulation, cash-for-clunkers, "gainful employment" regulation in higher ed, and the rest. Now, it's true that conservatives generally ignored education while focusing on these other issues in 2009 and 2010--but brewing concerns about the Common Core, in particular, may be changing things.

Now, fact pattern number two is far more evident on conservatives listservs than it is in Washington or in ed reform circles (that's why, when I signal that there's any legitimacy to fact pattern two, my friends on the left seem to think I'm just looking to stir up trouble). Indeed, efforts by adherents of fact pattern one to rebut skeptics or reassure those on the fence--as with the Jeb Bush-Joel Klein WSJ op-ed on the Common Core last week--have typically repeated edu-talking points compelling to ed reformers but done nothing to make the case that critics' broader concerns are misplaced or exaggerated.

Whether or not ED, Washington Republicans, or the "reform" community like it, fact pattern two is out there--and I'll wager it's going to grow more visible over the next 16 months. For starters, remember that it's only been six months since there was unified Democratic control of Washington. From January 2009 to January 2011, Republicans were eager to find any glimmers they could like in Obama's Washington, and education was a bright spot. The mindset has changed in significant ways, and to an extent that Duncan's team seems not yet to grasp.

More to the point, there now seems to be a strong chance that Texas Governor Rick Perry is going to get into the GOP Presidential contest. Even if he doesn't, Bachmann, Pawlenty, Romney, et al. are going to spend the next six months blasting Obama for overreach and trying to run the country from Washington. But, if Perry does get in, the rest of 2011 will feature him and Bachmann trying to get to each other's right on this point. With Texas now out of CCSSO and Perry having blasted Race to the Top and Common Core, it's likely that education will be an integral part of that story. That debate is likely to anchor the contest, forcing Romney, Huntsman, and Pawlenty to address these concerns. And, right now, doesn't look like there's much benefit for any of the candidates to leap to Obama's defense.

Bottom line: It's likely that the edu-debates will become increasingly polarized across partisan lines over the next year. Duncan's executive branch chest-thumping and the President calling Congressional Republicans less responsible than his young daughters don't help much on that score. We'll just have to wait and see whether conservative governors or legislators in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina start to express second thoughts on the Common Core or show a desire to cross swords with the administration over NCLB compliance.

Look, Obama is going to win or lose in 2012 based on unemployment and the economy, not the merits or frailties of his policy agenda. But, the shape of the edu-debates for 2013 and beyond--including the politics of NCLB reauth, the Common Core, and federal support for innovation--is going to be baked by the debates of 2011 and 2012. Pattern one enthusiasts would do well to take note.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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