The radical, sensible, vital (?) center

Alone among major domestic policy subjects, education boasts a broad, aggressive center. Not the wan, split-the-difference kind, but the bold yet practical kind. In Washington, Education Sector may be near the center of that center, but support for key elements radiates left and right.

All good. The problem is that among Washington politicians, we seem to be seeing more polarization rather than less. Most Democrats voted for NCLB, but nowadays many complain about it–not just in the details but at the core. George Bush signed NCLB, but his successor may well ditch it.

What will it take for the smart center of education policy to prevail? Here are four things that would help–none necessary, none sufficient, but each helpful:

1. The country’s conservative leadership could stop spending tens of billions on special-interest giveaways and start spending more on education instead. This is not just a liberal talking point. Substantively, teachers’ base salaries just aren’t high enough to institute performance pay by cutting them; most regular public schools just aren’t rich enough to better fund charters out of their budgets. Politically, pragmatic progressives need a partner on the other side; otherwise, when they try to bring along their own people, they are said to sound “quaint.”

2. While it would be nice if conservatives recommitted to their own best principles, progressives can’t wait. That means progressive constituencies need to put education back on the agenda. If Wall Street Democrats pushed for moderation on education the way they do on trade, or if civil rights groups demanded action on the achievement gap the way they do on affirmative action, the Democratic Party would begin to see education very differently. Ditto if the progressive “netroots” recognized that sometimes the best evidence of the courage and principle they claim to want is disagreeing with liberal orthodoxy.

3. Dedicated educators have to continue putting points on the board, with more easy-to-understand, real-world successes that prove reform can matter. Stories like this and this will do far more to advance the cause than anything Washington wonks write.

4. Most everybody in the Eduworld could tone it down. I was sad when I visited the AFT’s new blog and found a post critiquing national standards under the alternative titles of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “slouching towards gomorrah.” This is not how the center will hold. And the reform types–me included–need to tone it down too. We could speak less harshly and question personal motives less quickly. From a great post on a progressive site: “the most powerful voices of change in the country, from Lincoln to King, have been those who can speak with the utmost conviction about the great issues of the day without ever belittling those who opposed them, and without denying the limits of their own perspectives.”

Easy enough, yes?


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