Opinion: Anti-Obama feelings harm school reform

With all the attention being paid to Syria, the debt ceiling crisis and the imminent deadline for a budget deal, it is easy to overlook Congress’ failure in the last five years to deal with the most important problem facing the nation in this generation — how to repair America’s fraying public schools.


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Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate have abandoned President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan. The administration is even offering waivers to let states escape the plan’s standards. President Obama’s reform plan, called “Race to the Top,” cannot find enough support to become law.

As Congress fiddles the nation’s schools are sinking deeper into mediocrity, if not outright failure. The problem is not limited to big city schools serving poor and minority children. The problem goes beyond the hollows of Appalachia and other rural school districts. It is a national problem in need of congressional attention.

I have long been a supporter of school choice, including charter schools and vouchers, out of concern for the young lives being ruined by bad schools today. The alarms are going off everywhere but Congress. Just ask Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan and head of the Business Roundtable. In an article last month they wrote: “America’s public K-12 education system isn’t making the grade.”

Donohue and Engler put the nation’s education “crisis” in economic terms. They said 90 percent of “jobs in the fastest growing occupations require postsecondary education and training. If we don’t have the workers to fill them, we will risk our economic leadership in the world.”

Among the 34 top industrialized countries, Donohue and Engler cited data showing American students 14th in reading, 17th in science and “a dismal 25th in math.”

While Congress refuses to do anything about the blight attached to public schools, a new idea has emerged in the states. With voluntary, bipartisan backing, The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association got 45 state legislatures to adopt “Common Core.” It sets standards for student achievement from grade to grade. There is no set curriculum. The idea is to ensure students are getting the basics and, if they need help, to get them fast remedial attention.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, all Republicans, are strong supporters of “Common Core” standards.

But “Common Core” is now under attack nationally and in Congress as a big government, Obama administration conspiracy. States led by Republicans — Michigan, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah and Alabama — are pulling away from “Common Core.”

The views of Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a member of the House Education Committee, are typical of the conservative attacks on “Common Core.”

“While the goal of holding our children to high standards of education is a good one, Common Core is bad policy, implemented unfairly, that achieves mediocrity at the expense of states’ sovereignty and local control,” DesJarlais told a Tennessee paper.

The attack on “Common Core” is also underway in the Senate.

“Common Core started out as a well-intentioned effort to develop more rigorous curriculum standards,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “However, it is increasingly being used by the Obama administration to turn the Department of Education into what is effectively a national school board.”

Congress’ failure to seriously debate school reform was reflected in an August Gallup poll that showed 62 percent of Americans had never heard of “Common Core.” Among the 38 percent who knew about the plan, the most glaring misconception is that it is a mandate being forced on the states by the federal government.

It is true the Department of Education is promoting higher standards for students nationwide by offering states federal dollars. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls “Common Core” the “single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown vs. Board of Education.”

State governments are acting to improve schools in the face of congressional inaction. But now the president’s conservative critics have reacted to the administration’s embrace of the plan with knee-jerk opposition to anything that carries Obama’s imprimatur.

Donohue and Engler are often critical of the Obama administration, but on this issue the two conservatives see a need for Americans of all political and professional affiliations to offer support:

“Business leaders not only want to see U.S. students poised for personal success, we want to see them equipped with the skills to be productive employees and strong contributors to our economy… parents, educators, labor, business and policymakers must commit to working cooperatively toward our shared goal of strengthening U.S. education.”

Notice that they did not mention Congress.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.