Stop Pandering on Education

The crazy thing about the education debate in the United States is that anyone with an ounce of brains knows what must be done. Each political party is about half right. Republicans are right about the need for strict performance standards and wrong in believing that enduring change is possible without lots more money from Washington. Democrats are right about the need to pay teachers more but wrong to kiss up to teachers unions bent on preventing accountability.

As President Bush's flawed (but landmark) No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program comes up for reauthorization this year, the onus is on Democrats. Will they cave to their party's biggest special interest--or do what most of them acknowledge in private is essential? Among Democratic presidential candidates, supporting accountability with teeth and more charter schools should be a litmus test for anyone serious about proving he or she is not just another hack.

The good news is that we're getting some leadership in New York, long a bastion of mindless paleoliberalism. Gov. Eliot Spitzer unveiled his first budget last week and it offers a grand bargain on education--much more money in exchange for much more accountability--that should be a national model. Predictably, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in the pocket of teachers unions, objects to Spitzer's plan to allow for more charter schools, even though thousands of low-income parents are on waiting lists to get into them. The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, called the new governor and tried to buffalo him on charters. She failed.

Spitzer seems game to fight his own party's instinct to pander. "The national Democratic Party has got to understand that real education reform is a central issue both politically and for our economic future," he told me last week. "We have to get our arms around the idea that if there's no performance, you must remove those responsible for the failure." It's a sad commentary on Democrats that they've allowed "educational accountability" to become a winning issue for the GOP.

In New York City--home to 1,400 schools, 80,000 teachers and 1.1 million students--Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a huge improvement over his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani) is showing what accountability means. First, he won mayoral control of the school system, a prerequisite for getting anything done in a big city. Now his tough-minded schools chancellor, Joel Klein (a Democrat), is moving forward on an important new plan to slash administrative layers and empower individual schools. The idea is to make each principal "the CEO of the school instead of an agent of the bureaucracy," Klein says. More than 300 New York principals are signing performance contracts that give them more control in exchange for being accountable. Klein means business: "If your school gets a D or an F, I'm gonna fire your ass."

A big accountability problem nationwide is teacher tenure, which is almost automatically awarded whether a teacher is good or not. If he's not, he gets to commit educational malpractice for the next 40 years. In New York, Klein wants to toughen standards for receiving tenure, and he has already succeeded in ending union "bumping rights," where lousy teachers with seniority can bump good, younger teachers and move into a school where a good principal doesn't want them. Above all, a principal must have control of who teaches in his or her building. All other reforms depend on it.

At the five-year mark, NCLB is a mixed blessing. While Bush has sharply increased federal aid to at-risk schools, he broke his 2001 funding promises. Where's the cash to attract talented teachers? But once the Democratic Congress addresses the money problem and works out some testing kinks, the real fault of NCLB will become clear: it doesn't go far enough.

It's time to move from identifying failing schools to identifying failing teachers. That sounds obvious, but until now it hasn't happened in American education. "We need a management tool that can show whether Ms. Jones can teach long division," says Margaret Spellings, Bush's sensible secretary of Education. Too many educators are still caught in what Klein calls a "culture of excuses." The excuse du jour is that NCLB is "punitive." But Spellings has a point that basic assessment is both right and popular: "I don't think parents see reliable data as punitive."

Do Democratic presidential contenders? Education Week rated Iowa and New Hampshire as having the two least-accountable state education systems in the country. Uh-oh. Let's hope the press and public are prepared to call candidates to account if they undertake a primary-season panderfest.