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Reform School

The education (on education) of Barack Obama.

The conservative punditocracy's love affair with Barack Obama is finally coming to an end. No doubt that owes mostly to the decline of Hillary Clinton's candidacy--and the increased political risk of saying anything nice about a Democrat who looks like he might actually win--but the official rationale is ideological: Where once the right's scribes had, like George F. Will, characterized the former Harvard Law Review editor as "refreshingly cerebral," they have now decided that he's just a regular old liberal. "A People for the American Way computer program would cast the same votes for cheaper," scoffed erstwhile Obamaphile David Brooks.

He has a point. Obama is not the most liberal member of the Senate--the widely reported National Journal rankings released in January, which say that he is, are essentially meaningless when it comes to grading presidential candidates, who inevitably miss significant numbers of votes--but nor is he a centrist. National Journal's rankings from last year, which have more validity, scored him as the tenth most liberal senator. The tension between Obama's post- partisan rhetoric and his deep-blue voting pattern is real.

There's at least one issue, though, on which Obama's record puts him sharply at odds with the party's liberal establishment: education. Obama has long advocated a reformist agenda that looks favorably upon things like competition between schools, test-based accountability, and performance pay for teachers. But the Obama campaign has hesitated to trumpet its candidate's maverick credentials. As an increasingly influential chorus of donors and policy wonks pushes an agenda within the Democratic Party that frightens teachers' unions and their traditional liberal allies, Obama seems unsure how far he can go in reassuring the former group that he's one of them without alienating the latter. And this is a shame, because Obama may represent the best hope for real reform in decades.

Obama's background certainly gives educational traditionalists pause. During his time in the state legislature, The Chicago Tribune described him as "a leading advocate in Illinois of charter schools," and, in a 2002 interview, he said he was "not closed-minded" on the question of vouchers. He also championed legislation creating Illinois's innovative universal preschool program, which focuses more on the first three years of a child's life than equivalent programs in other states do. "He was always considered someone who was willing to look outside of the box for solutions," says Donald Feinstein, executive director of Chicago's Academy for Urban School Leadership.

That pattern continued when Obama arrived in Washington. In a strongly worded October 2005 education policy speech, he warned that "government alone can't meet" the challenge of preparing children to compete in a globalized world, and he criticized "liberals who will look at failing test scores and failing schools and not realize how much change matters." He introduced legislation to fund new training and teacher-pay programs that would encourage mentorship within the profession and a stronger commitment to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. And, when Obama kicked off his presidential campaign, he flaunted his heterodoxy: In July 2007, Obama told a gathering of the reform-averse National Education Association (NEA)--with 3.2 million members, the nation's largest labor union--that he supports performance-based pay incentives for individual teachers. As president, Obama says he would spend an additional $18 billion annually on education--more than Hillary Clinton--but he warns that greater funding must go hand-in-hand with greater accountability.

As the campaign has worn on, though, Obama has sounded more and more like a traditional liberal Democrat. His stump speech denounces No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--a law far more popular among the Democratic think-tank crowd than among party regulars, who dislike its reliance on standardized tests--with little mention of the "good elements" in the bill that he identified in his October 2005 speech. His campaign platform contains a handful of new ideas, notably on teacher recruitment and professional development, but many reformers find it disappointingly conventional. "It's not as bold as some of us were hoping for," says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a self-described Obama supporter. "He's been a little fuzzy." After he gave a major education policy address in New Hampshire last fall, Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor and Obama education adviser, emphasized to The Concord Monitor that his teacher-compensation plan--one of the few proposals in the speech that genuinely set him apart from the Democratic field--wasn't really a performance-pay scheme.

The very fact that Darling-Hammond is advising Obama has reformers worried. Whitney Tilson, a New York fund manager who is a major Obama donor, denounced her on his education-policy blog as being "about as bad as it gets in terms of education reform" and wrote that, in listening to her, Obama risked "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on this issue." (Though, lately, Tilson has mellowed: "It's a big tent, and I have no problem with him listening to a wide range of people," he told me.) Tilson wasn't alone in his surprise at Darling-Hammond's selection. "She has spent almost two decades trying to kill Teach for America. It seems like a strange choice for him," says Michael Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. (Teach for America circumvents the usual teacher certification process, troubling traditionalists.) And others on Obama's education policy team share Darling-Hammond's views. While Obama receives advice from a variety of scholars, "if you look at his top education advisers, there's hardly a reformer in the bunch," Petrilli says.

This apparent disconnect was at the center of a controversy that erupted the week before the Wisconsin primary in February. In an interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Obama seemed to indicate that he might support publicly funded school vouchers. He said he was skeptical that Milwaukee's pilot voucher program would work, but he didn't rule out the possibility that he might be proven wrong. "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn," he told the paper. The Ohio affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has endorsed Clinton, released a letter asking him to clarify his views, and Obama's campaign responded, emphasizing his record of opposition to vouchers. But the incident suggested that Obama doesn't adhere to the usual Democratic narrative.

Despite his occasional pandering to the left, many reformers assume that, deep down, Obama is with them. They don't have much of a choice: Clinton has never released a detailed K-12 education plan, and her orthodox public statements and union support have made it fairly clear that she toes the party line. But there's good reason to believe that the reformers aren't just deluding themselves. The Journal Sentinel interview wasn't an isolated incident: Obama has a habit of peppering his speeches with hints as to where his sympathies lie--a sort of dogwhistle politics for education wonks. He cites as a model Denver's pioneering teacher-compensation system, which provides bonus pay to teachers who agree to teach in poor neighborhoods and who do well on a variety of quality assessments, including having students who score highly on standardized tests. "Denver has become a buzzword for a willingness to do things differently," says Brad Jupp, a former teacher and senior academic policy adviser with the Denver Public Schools. By contrast, in November, Clinton told Iowa teachers the idea "would open a whole lot of problems."

Another reason to expect a new approach from Obama is that the terrain in the Democratic Party is as favorable as it's been in recent memory for an education reformer. The influence of teachers' unions within the party, though still strong, has waned. In September, Representative George Miller, the influential chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, publicly rebuked NEA president Reg Weaver for objecting to performance pay. And the AFT's backing hasn't exactly been a boon to Clinton.

At the same time, an increasing number of Democrats--some of them with deep pockets--have begun a concerted effort to counter the unions. Last year, Tilson and three other financiers founded Democrats for Education Reform. Last year, the group persuaded the New York state legislature to lift its cap on the number of charter schools permitted, funneling an additional $400 million to create new charter schools. "It's still a nascent movement, but we're starting to see a shift in the debate," Tilson says. Just as important, more established center-left think tanks, most notably the Center for American Progress, are taking up the reform banner, too. And younger rank-and-file teachers tend to be more open to ideas like performance pay, charter schools, extended class hours, and incentives to teach in disadvantaged schools. "There's a real generational divide. I wouldn't assume that all teachers will fight these proposals tooth- and-nail," says Wilkins.

Reform, of course, would still be an uphill battle. NCLB is almost certain to be reauthorized during the next president's first term, but a congressional coalition of conservative Republicans (who object to the law on federalism grounds) and liberal Democrats threatens to water down its reform-oriented provisions. These are unlikely to be renewed--let alone strengthened--unless the White House pushes hard for them. It's difficult to envision John McCain, who almost never mentions education on the trail, expending political capital on NCLB. Obama, for all his hedging, is the best bet to make it a priority. But, if he wants to, he'd best say so soon. As Petrilli put it: "The old rule in politics is that, if you want to get something done, you need to campaign on it. If Obama is going to be aggressive on education, he's going to have to talk about it at some point."

Josh Patashnik is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 28, 2008 issue of the magazine.