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What would a Republican Congress do for our schools?

By Jay Mathews

Ah, election day. Journalists who DON'T specialize in politics, like us education writers, can treat it like a midweek paid vacation.

The editors who usually ask us why in heaven's name we haven't finished our stories must instead handle the election stuff. The voting and the results fill their time and the newspaper, for at least a couple of days, giving us marginalized non-political reporters time to catch up on our fantasy football trades and maybe sneak out to a movie.

There is something interesting to say about schools and this election, however. Everyone seems certain the Republicans will regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The most daring analysts suggest even the Senate might shift. How would that change the government's education policy?

The answer seems to be not much, other than slowing down even further what has been a sluggish effort to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law into something that better fits what we have learned about federal involvement in local schools.

By far the wisest pieces on this issue lately are by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli of the Fordham Institute in Washington, found on their edexcellence.net Web site. Their point is this: There is a huge difference between Republicans in state governors' offices, where many worthy experiments are underway to improve schools, and Republicans in Congress, where Finn and Petrilli say "the GOP doesn't know what it stands for on education anymore."

The Republican leaders who put together the Pledge to America for voters wanting to know what the new GOP surge would mean made this point clear by never mentioning the word "education" even once in that document.

Finn is a particularly valuable witness on this matter because he has been in Washington for three decades, and once had an important position in the Reagan administration as one of Education Secretary Bill Bennett's key lieutenants. He knows that Republican presidents can make large and important changes in policy, but Republican Congresses, without a GOP president to follow, tend to fall back into the old habit of defending states' rights. That means the power of localities to decide for themselves what schools should be like as a reason to oppose whatever Congressional Democrats are trying to do.

Finn and Petrilli correctly conclude that "states' rights in education today mean weak standards, shaky accountability, ed school monopolies in preparing teachers and principals, limited (and resource-starved) school choices, meaningless certification and regulation requirements, and scant freedom for those running schools to ensure that they'll be effective."

There are GOP governors who have made strides in improving schools, and have applauded initiatives by both the Bush and Obama administrations. But usually the state legislatures are more comfortable doing what the traditional public school establishment tells them to do. Local control, Finn and Petrilli say, often means union dominance in the cities and smug complacency in the suburbs. (In another piece, the two experts say they don't expect much progress to be made if the Democrats retain control of Congress either.)

I have spent my life as an education writer staying as far away from state and federal policymakers as possible. I think the more important story is what is happening in classrooms. Under a Republican congress, that is likely to continue to be the case. Politicians will eventually rally around good ideas that come from smart and energetic teachers, but they are not going to come up with that stuff on their own, and we should not expect them too.

Happy election day. I wonder what I should have for lunch?

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 2, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Chester E. Finn Jr., GOP in the states very different from GOP in congress on school issues, How a Republican congress will treat schools, Michael Petrilli  
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Comments

Schools have proven themselves to be very determined forces against changes they don't want.

I'm not worried about a two-year stint of Republicans with a slim majority changing much.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 2, 2010 6:34 AM | Report abuse

Republican or Democrat Congress doesn't seem to matter. Same with the executive branch. What I believe to be a good thing is a bipartisan Washington belief that public education is broken for our urban districts. Fifty states going in fifty different directions is NOT an answer to any of the ills for poor/minority students coast to coast.

The educational establishment remains in complete denial, scratching their heads about what's been mandated from Washington since 2001 - from both a Republican and Democrat administration and Congress. Bush and Obama have essentially been on the same page attempting to direct our schools away from failed policies of the past.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of problems with NCLB and RttT. Both of these initiatives are merely the outliers attempts to change the status quo, good or bad. Parents and taxpayers are fed up with our failed schools, especially the inner city districts. We're paying too much money to see the system to continue to fail. What's interesting is the left and the right appear to be of the same mindset on their reform agendas.

Posted by: phoss1 | November 2, 2010 6:54 AM | Report abuse

If there is one thing I would have a Republican Congress NOT to do anything about, it would be schools. Not that education isn't important, but there are too many other things like the deficit, jobs, entitlements, taxes, etc that only the Congress can deal with that they shouldn't go around playing dilettante with schools and education

Not everything worthwhile comes from Washington. Matter of fact, most doesn’t.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 2, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Good comments. I think fairfaxvaguy has a point. It feels like giving up to say that we can't expect much from the feds, and shouldn't try, but it is in most cases the truth. It may be better to spend our money and energy on local or state solutions.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 2, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

We might not expect members of Congress to come up with great ideas for education, but we would expect them to listen to a variety of people who know about education before they try implementing "new" ideas. We expect them to cease name calling and begin working together to protect the citizens of our country from laws that benefit only a few.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 2, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for speculating on this, Jay, but you have one little piece that is mightily wrong, and it makes all the difference in educational change. That is "Politicians will eventually rally around good ideas that come from smart and energetic teachers". This has never happened before, it certainly is not happening now, so why think things might change any time soon?

I have repeatedly advocated in these blogs to give actual classroom teachers copious space to "tell it like it is". Hasn't happened yet from you although Valerie does try.

The only people who can "fix" things in all reality are the people actually doing the job day in and day out, the teachers.
Politicians and media mavens wouldn't have that. It gives their power away so the kids contine to lose.

Politicians rally around smart teachers - what a bad joke.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 2, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I arrived at my polling place today and found no line at all (I had a longer wait at a nearby gas station). I must have been in and out in 5 minutes. But in that time I marveled at the democratic process. Who would have thought that the name of a man who won an unprecedented city-wide mandate, just four years earlier, would not even be on the ballot? I do not know to what extent Fenty's reliance on Rhee's version of reform doomed him. But I do remember jotting a note to myself to remind my students about the power of the people. For more on my experiences teaching in DCPS, please visit my blog at teachermandc.comm.

Posted by: dcproud1 | November 2, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

I feel that the party that controls congress and the government don't have a large effect on education. Of course each party has different views but the education system doesn't change each time the party control switches. It takes more than a few congressmen or what not to change the education system in this country. The way the system is ran doesn't just depend on the federal. It deals with the state level and the preparation of teachers. Not every school in this country is not the ran the same and many need improvement, which has nothing to do with the political party that represents their elected officials.

Posted by: megankrose | November 2, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

@meganrose
I wonder if you taught before NCLB. I certainly think there has been less creativity and more teaching to the test since that was passed at the federal level.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 3, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Everyone is entitled to an education - but in the proper environment. You can not combine special needs children, sociopathic children, and advanced students with the general population in the schools and expect anyone to come out with a good education. Teachers are not qualified to teach in this broad scope. Schools are not providing safe environments for the students or faculty.

As an author, I recently published a book, Because, It's Just Good Manners! and with that publication I challenged students to practice good manners for one week. I also urged parents, businesses and the media to "bully" schools into participating in the challenge - for one week. My book is offered as a free download as an incentive.

Are schools qualified or capable of teaching good manners to students in today's schools?

People need to realize there is a direct correlation between the decrease in good manners and common courtesies and the increase in violence, abuse, and bullying, across the nation. What happened to the concept of enforcing civil rights in the schools?

Why do we need local, state and federal laws against bullying in schools when we already have the civil rights acts which are not being enforced? Why not let the law enforcement types, step into the schools and educate the faculty and students on what their rights are - and then be prepared to enforce those laws?

We have managed to turn our schools into ineffective environments by making them into multi-service facilities. Can we learn from this mistake?

When you look at the numbers, the number of students, versus the number of teachers, do you honestly believe the priority today is teachers wages versus providing a safe learning environment to children - an environment in which they can and will learn. These are the adults of the future. Teachers do want more money and partly because of the demands that are now placed on them to teach in multi-service, unsafe environments. The multi-service environments are wrong. The unsafe environments are wrong.

http://columbiacountypc.org/GoodManners.aspx

Learning good manners and common courtesies is not about pointing fingers as to who is or is not teaching or setting the good examples. It is simply about accepting the responsibility and living the lifestyle.

Our under age - student - population continues to grow and the real problems are out of control. They are fixable but the administrators need to think outside the box and go back to basics.

As my book says on the back cover, "It may be the most difficult decision you ever make." Do you or don't you teach good manners? Do you or don't you live by good manners?

Janet Horton
Columbia County PC Incorporated
PO Box 3473
265 NE Jacksonville Loop
Lake City, FL 32056
1-386-719-6999

http://columbiacountypc.org

Posted by: jhcesi | November 3, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Parents, in addition to teachers, deserve respect and more attention by all levels of politicians for their ideas to improve education..Also, the teachers’ unions need to “get in the back seat” as the country addresses education reform due to their agenda being at odds with the best interests of the students!

I have no qualm with local control for education. However, every school should have to test using the same nationally normed test (such as the ITBS or TerraNova), report individual PERCENTILE rank to parents and group PERCENTILES to the community. Separate, watered- down, state tests showing PERCENTAGES of students deemed “proficient” (or not) are just political shell games. We need to compare apples to apples and let schools demonstrate their merit clearly to parents and taxpayers.

Posted by: wednesdaydog | November 3, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

For 1bnthrdntht--I can think of several examples: Federal support for subsidies to pay AP and IB test fees for low income students, federal grants to high performing charters like KIPP, NCLB rules that require schools to look at achievement gains of low income and minority students separately from the overall population, new federal rules allowing same sex orientation of public schools.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 3, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse


I think the Republicans will no doubt slow down what progress we have made in education. The democrats have started to move the educational system away from essentialism. But the Republicans have made it clear they have no intention of moving away from essentialism. Most Republicans still support No Child Left Behind. Which is an obvious broken bill that needs to be revised.

Posted by: pernellr1 | November 4, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

No matter Republican or Democrat the education field isn't being reformed yet. Yes, some changes are starting to be made but much more needs to occur. We are wasting time arguing about which side has the best plan of action intead of coming together to get something done. And meanwhile, we are failing our kids. Unity needs to form and people need to start believing that eucation is vital to the sucess of our future. We need better programs, standardized tests, teachers, and money to make it all possible. Education can be fixed now or paid for later.

Posted by: bearde1 | November 4, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

No matter Republican or Democrat the education field isn't being reformed yet. Yes, some changes are starting to be made but much more needs to occur. We are wasting time arguing about which side has the best plan of action intead of coming together to get something done. And meanwhile, we are failing our kids. Unity needs to form and people need to start believing that eucation is vital to the sucess of our future. We need better programs, standardized tests, teachers, and money to make it all possible. Education can be fixed now or paid for later.

Posted by: bearde1 | November 4, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

No matter Republican or Democrat the education field isn't being reformed yet. Yes, some changes are starting to be made but much more needs to occur. We are wasting time arguing about which side has the best plan of action intead of coming together to get something done. And meanwhile, we are failing our kids. Unity needs to form and people need to start believing that eucation is vital to the sucess of our future. We need better programs, standardized tests, teachers, and money to make it all possible. Education can be fixed now or paid for later.

Posted by: bearde1 | November 4, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

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