Saturday, June 14, 2008

Obama, Liberalism and the Challenge of Reform

David Brooks exactly nails it in his Op Ed yesterday.  You can almost always tell the difference between Old Democrats and New Democrats based on where they stand on school reform.  The former toe the teacher union line, whining about how schools shouldn't be held responsible for "those" kids from bad families and bad neighborhoods (aka, "blame-the-victim").  As Brooks writes, they argue:
that poverty and broad social factors drive high dropout rates and other bad outcomes. Schools alone can’t combat that, so more money should go to health care programs, anti-poverty initiatives and after-school and pre-K programs. When it comes to improving schools, the essential message is that we need to spend more on what we’re already doing: smaller class sizes, better instruction, better teacher training.
New Democrats and genuine school reformers, while recognizing the great challenges of educating children from difficult life circumstances, believe that schools can and should properly educate every child, not just the easiest ones to teach.  They also recognize that the primary problem is not bad kids/families/communities, but broken, dysfunctional, unaccountable systems that serve the interests of the adults in the system and the politicians who support it, but screw millions of mostly poor, minority children.  Brooks summarizes the reformers' views well:
The reformers want to change the structure of the system, not just spend more on the same old things. Tough decisions have to be made about who belongs in the classroom and who doesn’t. Parents have to be given more control over education through public charter schools. Teacher contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom need to be revised. Most importantly, accountability has to be rigorous and relentless. No Child Left Behind has its problems, but it has ushered in a data revolution, and hard data is the prerequisite for change.
Brooks asks a good question: "Which camp is Barack Obama in?He doesn't know the answer and I'm not certain of it either, though I'm cautiously optimistic.  I'm quite certain that he's smart and informed enough to understand what's really going on -- the only question is whether, as President, he'd be willing to make this a high enough priority and spend the political capital to bring about real change.
I'm not troubled by the fact that Obama didn't rock the boat on this issue during the primary battle -- the reality of Democratic primary politics is that, just as every candidate had better support ethanol and farm subsidies, they'd also better not make enemies with the teachers unions.
But now it's the general election.  It's not like the teachers unions are ever going to support McCain, and Obama owes the unions nothing: the NEA tacitly supported Clinton and the AFT actively did -- see and, in which I wrote: 
This judge's ruling yesterday in Nevada is very big news, not only for improving Obama's chances of winning there, but because of the story behind it.  In short, the teachers unions are burning their bridges with Obama, which will have profound -- and wonderful -- implications for education reform should he become President. 
Here's the latest news:
A union with ties to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton failed in court Thursday to block the state party's plans to hold caucuses at special precincts inside casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.
I'll give you three guesses which "union with ties to...Clinton" was behind the lawsuit...  You got it: the TEACHERS UNION, as the article notes below:
Nevada State Education Association President Lynn Warne denied the case was linked to the Clinton campaign and said there would be no appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
What's going on in Nevada is really important because when one examines which unions are backing which candidate, it's clear that this is shaping up as a fight between high-paid government workers (teachers and clerks) and private-sector low-wage workers, whose kids are forced to attend failing schools.
In addition, such desperate attacks on a Democrat -- especially one who's been such a great friend to labor! -- are highly unusual and underscore how threatened traditional unions are by the change Obama represents.  The teachers, in particular, are much more swayed by Clinton's "35-year history of change" (yeah, RIGHT!)because they like the status quo just fine and especially just want to make it to retirement without much changing.
So, I am eagerly looking forward to Obama staking out a bold education reform agenda -- though he may choose to wait until after the convention, given that teacher union reps make up 12% of the delegates the last I heard.
June 13, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Obama, Liberalism and the Challenge of Reform

Is Barack Obama really a force for change, or is he just a traditional Democrat with a patina of postpartisan rhetoric?

That question is surprisingly hard to answer. When you listen to his best speeches, you see a person who really could herald a new political era. But when you look into his actual policies, you often find a list of orthodox liberal programs that no centrist or moderate conservative would have any reason to support.

To investigate this question, I looked more closely into Obama’s education policies. Education is a good area to probe because Obama knows a lot about it, and because there are two education camps within the Democratic Party: a status quo camp and a reform camp. The two camps issued dueling strategy statements this week.


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