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Obama: Education President?

The NEA says no, but you may want to decide for yourself.

By Alexander Russo |

May 2008


What's he thinking, educationally?
What's he thinking, educationally?

Sure, he’s been bashing No Child Left Behind. Many educators hate NCLB, and it makes little sense to defend a law—and a president—that’s so unpopular. But Barack Obama’s views may not be as liberal as they seem. He won’t dismantle NCLB—none of the candidates will—and he holds a slew of positions that may affect teachers’ and administrators’ jobs—including yours.

For example, he hasn’t ruled out private school vouchers, and some say he could return to the idea. He’s expressed admiration for Denver’s ProComp and floated his own ideas about performance pay. And he’s squarely in favor of charter schools.

Some of Obama’s other ideas have more support from long-time educators, such as funding for principal “residency” programs that give new administrators a year of mentoring in a real-world setting. He’s also professed independence from teachers unions, a position some administrators may find refreshing.

“I’m not going to be bound by a certain way of talking about these things in order for us to move forward on behalf of our kids,” he said in an interview when asked about unions and school reform. For these reasons, the United Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have not endorsed him.Then again, he isn’t on the hot seat yet, and it’s hard to tell from speeches and campaign propaganda what he’d really do if he were in charge.

As a first-term U.S. senator, he missed having to vote for (or against) NCLB six years ago, so he’s free to say he’s against it without having had to make the call. And Congress has delayed revamping the law, so he’s been spared any real tough education votes in recent months.

As a state senator from Chicago, Obama didn’t actively oppose a number of get-tough initiatives proposed by Mayor Daley after he won control of city schools in 1995. These included putting schools on probation, ending social promotion, and mandatory summer school.

The only time Obama stood up to the Chicago Board of Education was in 1999, when then schools chief Paul Vallas tried to wrest control of principal hiring and firing from local school councils. The councils had already been making those decisions at individual schools for a decade, and as a former community organizer Obama found it hard to limit local control.

Confused yet? You’re not alone. As a candidate, Obama is mostly pushing traditional Democratic ideas. At times, however, he’s sounded much more like a reform-minded free thinker.

The New Republic put it this way: “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.”

If Obama reaches the White House, these two impulses will continue to push against each other. It’s anybody’s guess which side will win.

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