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Grijalva Pushing Back on “Nixon Goes to Waiting for Superman” Moment on Education Reform

I’ve said often that the area of common ground between Republicans and President Obama clearly was on the issue of education reform. They both believe in the talking points of merit pay, charter schools, and policies less friendly to teacher’s unions. Surely the two could hodl hands and union-bash together. Call it the “Nixon Goes to Waiting for Superman” moment.

Dana Goldstein has the same thoughts, with some tempering of the possibilities.

First, in their zeal to cut the budget, Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell have said they oppose any additional funding of Obama’s signature education reform program, the Race to the Top grant competition, in which states are rewarded for instituting policies such as teacher performance pay, opening new charter schools, and improving professional development for teachers and principals.

Second, Rand Paul and other winning Tea Partiers have sworn to return control of schools to local communities, a promise that stands in opposition to everything the bipartisan standards and accountability movement is about. Tea Partiers frequently vow to shut down the Department of Education.

Once the Tea Partiers are seated in Congress, though, longtime members will likely seek to temper their fire and brimstone. Republicans know education can be a winning issue with constituents, the majority of whom support spending on their own children’s schools. John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, has a longtime interest in federal education policy, dating back to his role ushering President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act through Congress in 2001, as then-Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats who worked with Boehner at the time say he developed a deep commitment to the legislation, which the Obama adminstration hopes to tweak, rename, and reauthorize in 2011 […]

As you can see, there are plenty of obstacles that could prevent education from becoming a bipartisan issue in 2011. But if there is cooperation, it will likely be around issues of teacher accountability and school choice, with President Obama potentially using private school vouchers as a bargaining chip in order to earn some Republican buy-in on tougher curriculum standards or spending on public charter schools.

I’m no fan of Race to the Top either, but you can see Obama moving to wherever the tea-infused Republicans end up on this issue. However, in his remarks yesterday, the President talked about education as more of a blunt instrument. He opposed any limiting of federal spending in that area, and he appealed to the moral force of investing in the future of American children. That’s probably something he’ll continue, but there are a host of issues like charter schools and merit pay that are points of agreement.

Fortunately, some progressives (now a plurality in the House Democratic caucus) have sniffed out the effort to make education reform the welfare reform of this age.

On Thursday morning, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was asked on the radio program Democracy Now! whether it was his sense that Obama hopes to make education his welfare reform.

“That’s my sense and also my concern, to be quite honest,” said Grijalva, who narrowly won reelection in his Tucson-based district. “We had an opportunity to reauthorize elementary and secondary education. We didn’t do that. Now we go back to a session in which the Republicans are going to control the Education and Labor Committee, of which I’m a member.”

Grijalva said that large parts of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s education efforts had already been rejected by Democrats. “Arne Duncan’s four prescriptions for fixing public schools, which were essentially to privatize, close them… we rejected them as a caucus on that committee,” said.

A lot of people on the Democratic left will be talking about investing in education, but they’ll really be saying different things. Grijalva wants the investment to go to, well, investment. Arne Duncan wants it to go to privatizing public education and bashing teacher’s unions. There’s a big difference.

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David Dayen

David Dayen