John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Education as a wedge issue

Posted on October 5, 2010
(Originally posted on TheHill.com 10/4)

Over the weekend, the NAACP and the NEA, without the slightest bit of irony, marched hand in hand in Washington in a rally that was touted as “One Nation Working Together.”

This comes on the heels of the National Education Association’s successful campaign to get Adrian Fenty fired from his job as mayor of the District of Columbia so that his successor, Vincent Gray, will fire Michelle Rhee, who is the last, best chance that the D.C. school system would improve.

The D.C. school system, by the way, is overwhelmingly black, and by firing Rhee, black students will be hurt the worst. But that fact seems to be lost on the NAACP leaders, who mindlessly march with teachers unions, thinking somehow that failing schools are good for the African-American community.

The White House thinks it can use education as a wedge issue against Republicans. It thinks that because some Tea Party Republicans have campaigned on the idea of getting rid of the Department of Education. But the question of whether the Department of Education exists or doesn’t exist is largely irrelevant to the bigger question of how you improve education in the country.

Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education in 1980. It is hard to make the case that our schools have improved much in the 30 years this Washington bureaucracy has existed. It is easy to make the case that our schools have actually gotten worse since the department was created.

It strains credulity to make the case that giving the Education Department more money will suddenly improve education in this country. It hasn’t in the past. Why would it in the future?

Most education spending comes at the local level, and there is a lot of waste at the local level. Just ask Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor. Christie is trying to get rid of the waste to prevent the Garden State from going bankrupt. He is confronting a teachers union that won’t negotiate and won’t budge. What they will do is attack Christie with unusual passion and nastiness. One union representative was widely quoted praying for Christie’s demise. Not his political demise. His actual death.

Christie is getting a lot of support, and not only from Tea Party conservatives. He is getting support from independent voters and a lot of Democrats who are sick and tired of being forced to pay high taxes to pay for the low performance of too many schools.

President Obama thinks he can make a political issue out of education. The theory goes that because Republicans typically don’t talk about education and because the Department of Education has been such a smashing success, he can attack them as enemies of education.

In the meantime, his Education czar is attempting to implement the exact same reforms proposed and implemented by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush believed the only way to improve education was by leveraging the small federal contribution to encourage greater accountability by demanding testable results. Bush took aim at the same teachers unions, because he recognized they were protecting too many mediocre teachers and they were the principal obstacles to reform.

President Obama’s Education secretary has recognized the same dynamic, but because he is a Democrat, he knows that he has to play nice with the unions or he will get fired. As a result, his reforms are not as far-reaching and probably won’t be as effective as No Child Left Behind.

The White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, said Monday: “The issue of education and reforming education so that we can be more competitive in the long term is a fundamental difference between President Obama and Republicans.” That is true, but not in the way that Pfeiffer means it. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shepherded President Bush’s reform bill through the Congress in 2001, so if you want to find champions of reform on Capitol Hill, you need to start with the Republicans.

The biggest obstacle to reform, of course, is the NEA, and they give a lot of money to congressional Democrats, so they, too, will be against reform.

Democrats are delusional if they think that they can succeed in making education a wedge issue this fall. The American people know that we spend enough to get quality education in this country. We just don’t get the quality education. And they know who is to blame. And it isn’t the Republicans.