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Educating Elected Officials Through Their Pocketbooks

Whether or not Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) is ready to do battle at this level is not really known, but give them credit for trying. Attached is Joe Williams' email calling on reform-minded Democrats and their supporters to "stand up to the CTA and NEA goons who are out to strip everything that is good and pure from NCLB" (made up quote --joking!). The only thing that gives DFER any real chance here is that they have a PAC -- perhaps their main innovation on the school reform advocacy front -- to which they hope you will contribute. They didn't help get the House freshmen elected (the NEA did), and they don't represent teachers (again, NEA and AFT), but maybe they'll help get some of lawmakers re-elected (or replaced). Or at least that's the idea.

Previous posts: An "Emily's List" For Education?


Dear friend:

I’m very worried.

In 2001, Congress (with help from Rep. George Miller and Sen. Ted Kennedy – both Democrats) took unprecedented steps toward infusing long-missing accountability into federal education policy. After pumping billions of Title I dollars from Washington to local districts each year, Congress for the first time required schools to show that students were actually benefiting (i.e. learning) from the federal funding. Even more, the No Child Left Behind Act went out of its way to make sure that schools and districts would not be able to hide poor performance by minority or disabled students by touting school wide or system wide student performance in the aggregate.

It is not an overstatement to suggest that the bi-partisan passage of NCLB was one of the most significant and sweeping federal education policy shifts in a generation. Even back when Congress was reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (which eventually became NCLB in its modern form), a frustrated New York Senator Robert Kennedy bemoaned the fact that we were setting up the federal program as a costly failure. “What happened to the children,” Kennedy asked during one of the hearings at the time. “Do you mean you spent a billion dollars and you don’t know whether they can read or not?”

The dollar amounts increased dramatically over the years, but the structural problems in the law didn’t go away – nor did the shameful achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts. The longer the federal programs were in place, the harder it became to get the education establishment to support making any changes at all that would jeopardize funding.

When Miller and Kennedy teamed up with the Bush administration to pass NCLB in 2001, it marked a historic victory for those who championed the academic needs of kids who had routinely slipped through the cracks. As NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein told his principals a few years ago: “Whatever else you may say about No Child Left Behind, it is forcing us to come to grips with a moral imperative that many of us might prefer to ignore: that we have a collective responsibility for the education of over 1 million children.”

You may have seen the news stories in the last few days about what is happening to NCLB. A process which began as a way to address widely-acknowledged shortcomings in the law (and to add long-overdue incentives to reward our nation’s most successful teachers and make sure that every child has an equal chance to be taught by an effective teacher) has morphed into an attempt by the powerful National Education Association to turn back the clock to the days when meaningful accountability was virtually nonexistent.

The Washington Post and New York Times editorial boards, among many others, have called out the NEA on its attempts to gut the law. But the political heat that is building to weaken the most important aspects of NCLB is very real. Democrats like George Miller and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are under tremendous pressure to come through with a victory for the adults who work in schools - in this case, at the expense of the children who deserve our full attention.

At this week’s committee hearings on NCLB, the NEA was out in full force with union leaders who were flown in from all over the country to lobby elected officials from their districts. They aren’t afraid to issue threats to Democrats when they feel it suits their needs. They are organized and they are effective. But they are also on the wrong side of this one.

Democrats in Congress have already proven that they are willing to take hits on NCLB when it means standing up for the millions of students whose academic performance will no longer be swept under the rug. But it is far from certain they will continue to hold the line, considering the fact that Miller and Pelosi are now being personally targeted by the NEA for their work on NCLB to date.

Our organization, Democrats for Education Reform, exists to provide political cover for elected officials who want to make progress and do the right thing for kids. We have big plans about working with Democrats who “get it” from coast to coast.

But the current NCLB reauthorization demands our collective attention NOW. We have been working with civil rights groups and non-partisan education reform groups to support meaningful changes to NCLB that preserve the hard-fought accountability mechanisms. We are fighting to ensure that no child is denied an opportunity to make something of his or her life because they are unlucky enough to be assigned to a substandard school.

But we very much need your help with this one, because the other side is mighty, committed, and angry.

How can you help? There are a number of ways:

1. Support our efforts to fight this battle in the coming weeks by contributing to our federal political action committee. For better or for worse, it costs money to fight these kinds of fights, especially when we’re up against an entire industry with millions at their disposal. You can contribute with a credit card at http://www.dfer.org/contribute/, or you can mail it to the address on our website. Your contributions will allow us to support a combined earned/paid media campaign, and to support politicians in Washington who will fight the good fight in the coming weeks.

2. Sign on to our Democrats for Education Reform “Statement of Principles” so that we can show our Democratic friends there is support for holding the line on accountability. You can use our online petition at http://www.dfer.org/petition/ After you sign on, continue to check for NCLB developments on the blog we have on our website.

3. Volunteer to help support the campaigns of politicians who will do the right thing. (Call me at 646-354-9625.)

4. Forward this request to anyone you know who feels as strongly about this as we do. Hell, forward it to people who feel HALF as strongly as we do.

This is a fight that CAN be won, but we need to move quickly. I hope you will join us in this crucial effort.


Joe Williams

Executive Director

Democrats for Education Reform


As far as I'm concerned, the Democrats for Education Reform are the Joe Liebermans of education politics. They've decided that the real enemy isn't the giant testing corporations that are making a zillion dollars from NCLB, nor is it the free-marketeers who would be happy if the public schools implode, nor is it basic skills zealots who think it's fine if inner city kids are fed a steady diet of test preparation. No, the real enemy is teachers (whom they cleverly call "the adults who work in schools" so their teacher bashing won't be quiet so obvious). If what we have now is "meaningful accountability," then we've all moved to Oz.

Tony got it perfect. I can understand why some Democrats would trade off education in order to sound tough, just like they supported Iraq. But I can't understand why a civil rights organization would support NCLB. I'll acknowledge my bias against standardized tests and for unions, but based on the research published this summer, local data from my school system, and my experience in inner city schools I would say the jury is in. At least in secondary schools, NCLB is badly damaging inner city schools with a high concentration of poverty. But I can't understand two things. Firstly, how come editors refer to unions as interest groups and yet they accept Ed Trust "research." I understand politics, including their negative politics, but if an academic produced work as inaccurate as the Ed Trust, he would be ridiculed out of the profession. If you actually read their "research" it can't be taken seriously as "social science" but their assertions are published because they do "public advocacy."

More importantly, how can you help poor children of color by continually demonizing teachers. Forty something years ago, many leftists attacked unions (and then they had reason) but I thought that that type of purer than thou politics had ended with the Vietnam War. My AFT friends and I are just as liberal and just as committed to children, but we are committed to something else - accuracy and the principles of public education. If that "unholy alliance" undermines unions' abilities to defend our profession and seek better solutions, how will a de-professionalized cadre of script-reading instructors take our place.

Finally, and this is the wierdest question, couldn't we get together and figure out dozens of alternative approaches? Can't progressives of good will come up with a better idea than teach the standardized test?

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