Mystery Emerges on Where Obama Stands in the Education Wars
Powerful Forces Aim To Pull Him in Different Difrections
By ELIZABETH GREEN, Staff Reporter of the Sun | August 22, 2008
By ELIZABETH GREEN
A bitter rift inside the Democratic Party over testing, teachers, and No Child Left Behind will be exposed this weekend as the party's convention kicks off in Denver, putting to a test Senator Obama's promise to bridge differences and bring diverse coalitions together.
Although everyone says the goal is to improve schools, one group of activists favors keeping No Child Left Behind mostly intact and pressing even more aggressive measures, such as firing teachers whose students do not score well on tests. Another group argues for overhauling the law, is less supportive of testing, and says failing schools need support, not punishments.
Both groups include prominent education leaders, as well as New York City names. Chancellor Joel Klein is a part of the first group, while the teachers union president, Randi Weingarten, has signed on to the second.
The mystery to some is where Mr. Obama stands in the fight.
Both groups say they believe they have his ear and support, and indeed Mr. Obama's circle of education advisers includes people with ties to each camp. Yet the groups remain bitterly at odds and appear to be jockeying for Mr. Obama's attention.
They have been circulating rival manifestos for months, both intended to influence federal as well as state and local politics. Mr. Obama has signed neither document.
At the convention, Ms. Weingarten, who recently was elected president of the national American Federation of Teachers union, has a speaking slot, while Mr. Klein and his group are staging a pre-convention event heralding their brand of education policy — with the help of at least one Obama adviser, the Denver principal Michael Johnston, who is speaking on a panel.
The campaign listed five education advisers: Mr. Johnston; a Stanford professor, Linda Darling-Hammond, who some in the first camp see as excessively critical of programs such as Teach For America; a New York City-based former aide to Vice President Gore, Jonathan Schnur, seen as a member of the first camp; the dean of the UCLA law school, Christopher Edley, and the Chicago schools chief, Arne Duncan, who signed both groups' manifestos.
Michael Petrilli, the vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington education think tank, said the diversity of opinions is telling. "It is hard to really know where Barack Obama's going to really go on education," he said.
Senior aides to Mr. Obama said his education positions are clear and specific, with details laid out in policy papers posted on his Web site.
The aides said differences among Mr. Obama's advisers are a matter of design.
Mr. Edley, who is the dean of the UCLA law school and Mr. Obama's former law school professor, said the Illinois senator's style is to consult many people.
"There is no education policy Svengali or Rasputin," Mr. Edley said. "His approach has consistently been to try to ignore the politics and the factions and focus on sensible policies that have a basis in the research, and let the chips fall where they may."
The result is a set of positions that negotiate something of a compromise: Mr. Obama says he supports the goals of No Child Left Behind but wants some methods changed, and he says there is too much focus on testing. He is also taking positions more geared to the first group's goal of accountability, such as supporting merit pay for teachers and an overhaul of graduate schools of education.
People on both sides of the Democratic debate said they believe Mr. Obama is in step with their positions.
The executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, Joseph Williams, who is organizing the pre-convention event featuring Mr. Klein, said Mr. Obama shares his group's support for aggressive change. He pointed to several signs that Mr. Obama is in favor of aggressive change, including his support for charter schools and that the Democratic Party platform now lays out clearer support for removing ineffective teachers.
The Duke professor Helen Ladd, a co-chairwoman of the opposing policy manifesto — known as the Broader, Bolder Agenda — said Mr. Obama's support for early-childhood education and beefed-up after-school programs is in line with the group's positions.
The groups are also making gestures to win Mr. Obama's support.
Mr. Klein, whose group is called the Education Equality Project, met with Obama aides along with the Reverend Al Sharpton. Their group also recruited the signature of Senator McCain, who announced his support along with a tough push that Mr. Obama should sign on, too.
The convener of the Broader, Bolder project, Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, said he has not asked Mr. Obama to sign his statement but that he did meet with his aides.
Mr. Schnur said that dividing policy into two groups — he described them as for accountability on the one hand and for resources and support on the other — presents a "false choice."
"We as a country must focus on both to address a very serious problem that we have in education in America," Mr. Schnur said.
Others predicted that bridging the two sides would be more difficult. "The danger is that it will lead to a policy that's not very coherent — that is working at cross-purposes with itself," Mr. Petrilli said.