Juan Williams: Bennet could break stalemate on schools

Juan Williams: Bennet could break stalemate on schools
© Greg Nash

“Let me warn you, I don’t have the party line — I’m sui generis on this one.”

Those are the first words from Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSenators urge FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Democrats hit gas on impeachment MORE (D-Colo.) as we start to discuss his willingness to antagonize teachers’ unions. 

It is eminently possible that Bennet could join with the new GOP Senate majority to break an 8-year stalemate and reauthorize the controversial federal education bill, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As a Democrat who supports school reform as a matter of equal opportunity for poor and minority children, I’ve argued that liberals ought to break with unions opposed to school reform. They should support good charter schools and give new life to NCLB.

Bennet, the former Denver schools superintendent, now stands as the key indicator of how much risk moderate Democrats are willing to take.

ADVERTISEMENT

The heart of the issue is the ardent opposition of the teachers’ unions to federally-mandated testing. Proponents of mandatory testing say it is vital in order to prevent student failure. It is also a key part of NCLB.

Bennet told me it is too early to say how much testing he will support. But he openly admires a GOP plan including test mandates that is headed for the Senate floor by the end of February. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), is proposing retaining federal testing but allowing the states to control the money and remedies for students and schools failing those tests. 

Bennet is willing to line up with Alexander and against the National Education Association, the biggest teachers’ union and a major funder for Democrats. The NEA charges that current requirements for annual tests on reading, writing and math for students in grades 3-8 and once more in high school – 17 tests in total — pressure teachers to teach test-taking instead of their subject. 

They also argue it leads to teachers being held responsible for student failure, and takes little or no account of the particular challenges faced by those who teach high-need students.

Bennet, who says “a balance needs to be struck,” agrees students take too many tests and joins with Republicans in calling for cuts to additional tests being used by local officials. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) school reform group estimates there are as many as 200 tests imposed on students and teachers by state and local governments. 

Senate Republicans on the HELP committee have all but endorsed continued federally-required tests to judge “what’s success, what’s failure and [what the] consequences [should be.]” 

Those are the words of HELP chairman Alexander in a recent Time magazine interview. They fit with Bennet’s view that, as the father of three girls in the Denver public schools, he is entitled to know how his daughters stand as students “relative to other children in their class and around the world.”

Even as he backs the federal mandate, Bennet wants to stop the use of tests to rank schools, and even entire school districts, as a success or failure. 

“As a practical matter, many school districts are over-testing…[It is] important to delineate between tests that don’t get anything done and tests that allow for accountability and assessment for teachers and learners,” Bennet said.

Bennet has important Democratic company in this position. Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Senate panel approves Trump FDA pick | Biden downplays Dem enthusiasm around 'Medicare for All' | Trump officials unveil program for free HIV prevention drugs for uninsured Trump's FDA nominee approved by Senate panel Democrats press Trump officials over drop in ObamaCare signups amid website problems MORE (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the committee and a strong liberal voice, is also defying calls to eliminate federal tests. 

Instead, she wrote recently in the Seattle Times, poor, minority and disabled students are the ones most likely to “fall through the cracks” without testing. 

“Measuring a student’s growth from year to year is one of the most important tools we have to make sure schools are preparing students for future success,” she added, “and it is too important for our country to simply take on faith.”  

The original NCLB law passed with broad bipartisan support. It was championed by current Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and signed by Republican President George W. Bush. 

The new Republican majority in the Senate is gaining surprising traction to pull the old law out of the political swamp in which it has been swallowed since it was first scheduled for reauthorization in 2007. 

In the last eight years, the political crossfire around the bill worsened as opposition to testing grew from the left and right — the unions complaining about pressure on teachers and conservatives opposing federal involvement in local schools. 

The result of all the political spitballs has been a tragic failure of the federal government to generate popular strategies to support good students and teachers who, in Bennet’s words, “work their tails off.” 

The extremes of both parties have targeted testing as the problem. The value of testing, however, has not been seriously questioned by the Education Department under either President Obama or President Bush.

When NCLB first came up for reauthorization in 2007, the Department of Education, under Bush, found the plan, including testing, had led reading and math scores for 9-year-olds to “all-time highs.”

Now the former schools superintendent, a rare politician who is an actual educator, is willing to cross party lines to affirm the federal government’s role in helping students.

He should be applauded for doing so.

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