Obama: An Education Reformer?

When the time came to find new schools for their two daughters, Michelle and Barack Obama did not even look at a public institution. This was hardly a shock. Aside from obvious security concerns, it's generally acknowledged that the Washington, D.C., public schools are among the worst in the country. In 1977, Jimmy Carter sent his daughter, Amy, to one. But in 1993, Bill Clinton sent his daughter, Chelsea, to a private school. There were few grumbles, at least not from parents in a position to make a similar choice.

As president, however, Obama will have a chance to greatly improve D.C. schools—and, possibly, inner-city public education across the country. The chancellor of the D.C. system, Michelle Rhee, has proposed an innovative teachers' contract that could allow her to reward the best teachers and dismiss the bad ones. Educators everywhere are watching to see what Obama says and does. If he backs Rhee's proposal, he will send a powerful signal to struggling inner-city schools that reform is possible. If he fudges or says nothing, it will be a signal that little will change for the poor and mostly black children in the capital's nearly dysfunctional apparatus.

Rhee has made no secret of her determination to break the union. With the support of Mayor Adrian Fenty and the promise of funds from private foundations, she wants to offer teachers a choice of two contracts. Under the first, teachers can make up to $130,000 in merit pay—but they must forgo tenure. Or they can choose to keep tenure, but accept a much more modest pay raise (the average teacher's salary in Washington is $65,902). It's likely that many teachers, especially younger ones, would choose option A, but it's hard to know for sure: the leaders of the Washington teachers union have refused to bring the measure to a vote. They do not want to put tenure at risk.

Rhee has conceded she may not succeed "without at least the tacit support of Barack Obama," writes Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt. "Congress controls the budget, many Democrats are closely tied to the teachers union, and the union may be heading for a clash with Rhee." Hiatt was at an Aspen Institute forum on Nov. 14 at which Rhee said: "It will depend on the fortitude of the administration. Because we're in D.C., it will get to that level."

The education community is badly split on the issue of how to hold teachers accountable. The establishment sees tenure as a shibboleth, teachers' only guard against politics and arbitrary firings. The reformers regard it as the chief obstacle to change, since it is next to impossible to remove ineffective teachers in almost all public systems. Obama has given mixed signals on accountability, and in his way, he has convinced each side that he agrees with them.

During the campaign, he ducked the issue of tenure, but came out in favor of performance pay. Some union backers were heartened when Obama appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor and a favorite of the unions, as head of his transition policy task force. Reformers view Darling-Hammond as "anti-accountability" because she is a critic of standardized testing and teachers' performance pay being linked to test scores. She has been very critical of Teach for America, the organization that sends thousands of recent college grads into inner-city schools each year. Darling-Hammond has argued that the answer is not to bring young, eager and untrained teachers into classrooms, but rather to better train the teachers already there. "People don't want to say anything publicly, because of the 'No-Drama Obama' stuff," says one well-placed reformer with ties to the incoming administration. "But many of us were stunned that Linda Darling-Hammond is still as influential as she is. We see her as very symbolic of the 'old school' of reform." Darling-Hammond responds, "The critiques of being 'old school' are particularly ironic since I have been fighting for a lot of reforms before they were recently on the national radar."

For many years, the teachers unions have been assured of the support of the Democratic Party. About a sixth of the delegates at the national convention belonged to a teachers union. But they seem to sense that their power is waning. Randi Weingarten, the chief of the American Federation of Teachers, recently gave a conciliatory speech, saying, "No issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers."

Rhee declined to comment to NEWSWEEK, but she has hinted that she will go to the federal government to declare a state of emergency in the D.C. schools. If Obama agrees to that, the union would lose its power to block Rhee. An Obama spokes-man had no comment. But the president-to-be may soon have a chance to take sides. Most issues in Washington can be straddled; this one cannot be.