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January 04, 2011

Meaningful Bipartisan School Reform

Richard Kahlenberg

Yesterday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan published an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for bipartisan school reform centered around ideas like charter schools and merit pay for teachers.  The instinct to find common ground between parties is sound, but as I note in an article in The New Republic today, a far better idea for bipartisan reform involves scaling up choice within the public school system.  If implemented correctly, the conservative idea of school choice can advance the liberal goal of reducing the economic school segregation that lies at the core of our education challenges.


Duncan’s op-ed correctly observes that “few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform” and he lists a number of sensible fixes to the No Child Left Behind Act, such as employing high quality tests that don’t narrow the curriculum, and measuring schools by the value they add to student learning as opposed to their absolute levels of performance.  Duncan then throws in ideas long congenial to Republicans:  charter schools (the vast majority of which are nonunionized), and teacher pay for performance.

Unfortunately, Duncan picks a fight by rejecting a key measure in No Child Left Behind that Republicans strongly favor: the federal right to transfer out of failing schools to better performing public schools.  He rejects “federally dictated...school-transfer options,” which conservatives advocate as a way to promote greater accountability and competition among schools.

But there is also a strong liberal reason to support public school choice: the program’s ability to liberate low-income students from struggling high poverty schools.  As James Ryan points out in his new book, Five Miles Away, A World Apart, the separation of rich and poor students in American public schools is the central impediment to equal opportunity.  If properly structured to allow movement across school district lines, public school choice could do far more to address the gap in school performance than traditional reforms.  As a Century Foundation study in Montgomery County Maryland recently found, even the most economically disadvantaged students can cut the achievement gap in half by attending more affluent schools. 

Education is an important topic for bipartisan reform.  But the key innovation lies in a different sort of reform than the Education Secretary envisions.

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