Interview with Michael Bennet
“Education” senator has no patience for partisanship.
Bennet made national news recently when he went to the floor of the U.S. Senate and vehemently denounced procedural delays getting in the way of the education committee's attempt to update No Child Left Behind. A committee member and a former Denver Public Schools superintendent, Bennet has been profiled in The New Yorker for his efforts to turn around that city's most dysfunctional schools, and is known for his commitment to education issues. So we asked the Democratic senator what happens next with federal policy-and how it will affect districts and schools.
Q: What got you so heated during the ESEA markup process in October?
A: There is no place further from our nation's schools than the U.S. Congress. And while we in Washington have become so mired in narrow political ideologies that nothing gets done, our children and teachers are paying the price.
Q: Do you consider yourself a fan or a foe of NCLB?
A: I have often said that if a rally were held today to keep No Child Left Behind the same, no one would show up. While NCLB drove important progress on transparency and data disaggregation, I think it's clear that the status quo in public education is not working for our kids or our country.
Q: How do you feel about the Harkin-Enzi legislation that came out of the committee?
A: In Washington, where getting anything done is rare, passing a bipartisan bill in committee is an important step forward. I am hopeful this can serve as a building block for a final bill that will roll back NCLB and dramatically improve outcomes for our kids.
Q: What about your priorities in terms of local control, equity, and teacher excellence?
A: I believe the bill passed by the HELP [Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions] Committee allows for a partnership with states and districts to drive reform, increasing flexibility while setting a high bar for excellence for all students. The bill passed out of committee drives equity by closing the comparability loophole, and it updates our approach.
Q: What do you think Secretary Duncan should do with states that aren't making progress on their Race to the Top commitments?
A: The secretary will have to walk a line between ensuring that states make good on their commitments while
recognizing the work is difficult and, in some cases, may take additional time to implement transformational change.
Q: Is SIG, the Obama administration's school improvement grant program, doing enough to help districts like Denver rescue broken schools, or is it getting in the way of local leaders figuring out what to do on their own?
A: SIG has been important in forcing action in the lowest-performing schools, something that is critical when we have children who are shackled to schools where they are getting no education at all. While some adjustments may need to be made to SIG, to insist these schools do something in exchange for taking federal funds is certainly not excessive intervention.
Q: What's your position on Duncan's NCLB waiver/reform scheme, which might well take effect if reauthorization doesn't get completed? At least one state-California-is claiming that the waiver plan will be extraordinarily expensive for states and districts to implement.
A: The administration's waiver package was designed to provide temporary relief to states that have been asking for relief from NCLB. The package can be an important tool for states like Colorado that are committed to setting a high bar for their students and teachers to gain additional flexibility to meet ambitious goals. However, waivers are not a comprehensive or permanent solution.
Q: Should school boards be elected, appointed, or abolished-or does governance not really matter as much as people think it does?
A: I am most interested in the outcomes at schools and school districts and ensuring that all kids are prepared for college and a career in the 21st-century job market. I've focused on making sure we have talented teachers and principals in our schools through proposals like the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act and the Presidential Teachers Corps.
Q: Where do you stand on three controversial teacher quality issues: ending seniority-based layoffs (LIFO), publishing value-added ratings, and paying teachers based on student achievement?
A: When I served as superintendent, we worked collaboratively with the union to institute a groundbreaking compensation system, ProComp. It increases starting compensation by 20 percent. It also rewards teachers based on their performance, for taking on tough assignments, and for teaching in hard-to-staff subjects.
Q: Should charter schools be required to enroll kids after the start of the year, or alternatively, should there be limits on how many kids district schools have to take?
A: In Denver, 100 percent of charters signed the charter compact, which says that all of their schools serve all of our kids and that we are committed to equity of opportunity, equity of access and responsibility, and equity of accountability.
Q: Is it a good thing or somehow dangerous that political money is coming into education reform-school board campaigns, foundation-funded advocacy groups?
A: The Supreme Court's Citizens United v. FEC ruling abandoned precedent and effectively allowed unlimited corporate and special interest spending in elections. It drowned the voices of ordinary Americans with a flood of distorting special interests. State legislatures and Congress now may not be allowed to approve even small campaign finance regulations. A Senate minority blocked a step in the right direction with a filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act that would provide more transparency.