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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Cross-Fire on Race to the Top

One of the great and ironic constants in this age of partisan and ideological polarization has been a tacit left-right alliance hostile to federal education initiatives promoting test-enforced national standards and–in some cases–charter public schools. In fact, one of the more reliable ways to get applause at both liberal and conservative grass-roots gatherings around the country for years now has been to call for the repeal of No Child Left Behind, that unlikely product of cooperation between Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush.
We’re seeing this phenomenon re-emerge with the implementation of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, a competition to reward states for educational innovations including higher academic standards, more openness to public school choice, and stronger performance indicators for teachers. Unsurprisingly, many on the left dislike charter schools, pay-for-performance, and “teaching to the test.” Many of the right are hostile to the very idea of federal involvement in education, and particularly to national standards of any sort; others are lukewarm to charter schools because they are public, and instead favor private-school vouchers and/or oppose “government schools” altogether.
Liberal hostility to Race to the Top was reflected in this recent effort by House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey to shift emergency funds out of RTT and into teacher layoff prevention. More broadly, there’s notable tension between teachers unions (particularly the NEA) and the administration on education policy.
One of the most interesting examples of conservative infighting on education policy is in Georgia, where lame duck Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue has made his state’s RTT application the centerpiece of his administration’s education program, and also a major part of its strategy to balance the state budget. But when Republican State School Superintendent Kathy Cox abruptly resigned to take a Washington think tank post, after the filing deadline for the post, the GOP was left with two candidates who opposed RTT because they oppose federal involvement in education altogether. So Perdue is backing an independent bid for the post by the career educator he appointed to replace Cox, which has made conservatives quite unhappy.
This is one major policy area where the differences within and between the two major parties are playing out at every level of government. It could be a very rocky ride just ahead for anyone longing for consistency in how our public schools are run.

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