A lesson on education for Obama

Jeanne Allen Senior Fellow, Center for Education Reform
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“We have broken through the stalemate between the left and right by launching a national competition on improving our schools.” —President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2010.

With all due respect Mr. President, we’ve had national left-right agreement for years on performance pay, charter schools and even the notion of vouchers—yes vouchers—for children in failing schools. The stalemate that existed—and continues to exist—is with the politicos on the left and right—the Beltway lawmakers, your colleagues in Washington and in the Ivory Towers. Why else did they unite to refuse a pittance of $14 million to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program? And yet in your State of the Union address last week you recommended $10,000 tax credits for families for higher education?

I know you believe that you’ve broken the stalemate. I know that people are telling you that this is so, with many in the media reinforcing it daily. But in most communities throughout the nation, the people do not feel that way. In most communities, parents are berated for questioning bad school policy; in most communities, teachers who want to join charter schools are labeled as sellouts. And throughout this country, the leadership of the teachers unions refuses to believe that their model is archaic and unable to solve the nation’s education ills. And yet you keep giving them airtime.

You say you want innovation. You say you want competition. And you say you want America to lead, not follow. You brought down the house during your State of the Union address by saying so. But education innovation, competition and leadership depends upon giving parents, teachers and schools the freedom to do their jobs, not forcing them to abide 20th century labor laws that product adults and not kids, and allowing children to attend schools based on their best interests, not on their ZIP code.
Good domestic policy isn’t just about making tough decisions on biofuel, energy or health care. Good domestic policy means making tough decisions about who educates our kids and who does not, and puts parents, not bureaucrats in charge.

Your increased spending might sound good to some people, but bloating government education policies and programs doesn’t make schools good. Changing behavior makes schools good. We said last year that you could help change behavior by demanding that states and communities adopt reforms that make fundamental reforms. But Race to the Top’s final guidelines fell short of your initial demands.

You’re right when you say that the best poverty program is a world-class education. Your words and your passion for this issue are commendable and I thank you for it. But now it’s time to send the job of education back to the states and to use your bully pulpit to highlight only truly great progress made in bringing fundamental choices to children, while at the same time demanding that no child be forced to attend a failing school. Do that. Tell the states to figure it out, and back off for a while. Tell them you won’t give them a dime until they do what’s right, not just promise to do what’s right. That’s when you’ll see real reform happen.

Jeanne Allen, the founder and president of The Center for Education Reform (CER), is one of America’s leading authorities on charter schools, school choice, teacher quality, and accountability. A mother of four, Jeanne is the author of “The School Reform Handbook: How to Improve Your Schools.”