NJ Dems Split-Personality-Disorder

Professor Pat McGuinn of Drew University, sitting in for Rick Hess at Edweek, examines the growing rift within the Democratic Party over national education reform. Two narratives emerge, according to McGuinn: one is based on equity of school resources and another is based on accountability. Read the whole thing, but here’s a sample:
Fundamentally, the disagreement centers on issues of governance and the appropriate role of the federal government in education. The central issue for Democrats has been how best to close persistent racial, socio-economic, and international achievement gaps in a fragmented and decentralized educational system. This is what might be called the 50/15,000/100,000 problem in American education reform--we have fifty different state education systems which collectively contain approximately 15,000 school districts and almost 100,000 schools. While the U.S. now has clear national goals in education, it lacks a national system of education within which to pursue these goals, and the federal government can only indirectly attempt to drive reform through the grant-in-aid system.
In New Jersey, of course, we have a 1/591/2,500 problem: one state education system that contains 591 school districts and 2,500 separate schools. We also have two competing narratives, one voiced primarily by NJEA’s leadership and Education Law Center (who echo national scholars like Diane Ravitch), arguing that our schools are generally well-performing and that poor student performance is a result of intractable poverty. The other narrative, argued by smaller, less powerful groups like E3 and Democrats for Education Reform’s NJ headquarters, plus a few loudmouths like me (we’ll get to our Republican governor in a moment) asserts that while our state is dotted with pockets of educational excellence, on balance we fail our poor urban students and the cause of this is not economic but political.

For the former narrative – the NJEA/ELC argument -- emphasis on accountability and all it entails (attention to data, tenure reform, merit pat) is counter-productive. It’s not the tests, it’s the poverty. Teachers know best how to reach students and using data as a metric is inherently unfair to students and educators. There’s an acknowledgment of either hopelessness or realism or resignation, depending on your wont. If educational achievement rides on the coattails of the amelioration of poverty, then we could be in for a long haul.

For the latter narrative, however, --- is it essentially hopeful or fantastic? How ironic is it that a data-obsessed movement could be painted as pollyannaish? -- accountability enables education to bypass the political interests that freeze out our ability to address deep-seated problems and inequities. Data is non-judgmental, unbiased, and indifferent to special interests, and all kids can learn.

(Back to the irony department: how did we get to a place where Bush’s speechwriter’s (Michael Gersen?) famous phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” is now the hallmark of the more powerful educational wing of the Democratic party?)

Anyway, back to Jersey. NJEA/ELC’s half-nelson on NJ’s education reform prospects would bring latter-narrative-Democrats to their knees if not for one curious happenstance: the current Republican Governor and his Administration are almost completely aligned with an educational constituency whose most influential spokesperson is the Democratic President of the United States. So the former-narrative-caucus – we won’t fix our educational potholes until we eliminate poverty – finds itself battling not only the NJ DOE but President Obama, whom they fought hard and expensively for a year and a half ago. And the latter-narrative caucus – the status quo fails our poor students; the problem is not just their poverty but our rejection of accountability – finds itself in a sort of transcendental bi-partisanship, finding bedfellows in odd places and allies that span traditional political divides. See the recent hail-fellow-well-met-amity between Gov. Christie and Democratic Mayor Cory Booker over Newark’s chronically failing schools.

In NJ, at least for now, the power rests with rooters for the status quo, McGuinn’s first narrative. State House antics aside, it's unclear how much the Legislature is willing to buck its pocketbooks and at least some core of its constituency. But adherents of the second narrative hope that the combination of federal commitment to education reform, increasing attention to the chronic failures of NJ’s poor urban districts, and the alliances of strange bedfellows will add up to a New Jersey-wide movement that sharpens the focus on the decades-long failures of our school system to offer an equitable education system to all children.