By Fawn Johnson
A coalition of 42 moderate Democrats on Friday will unveil a policy statement saying that anything short of robust legislation to ensure schools are accountable for student achievement is not likely to pass the House.
"We have substantial political power. Any reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would need to be bipartisan," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who authored the statement on behalf of the New Democrat Coalition with Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif. Polis and Davis chair the education task force for the New Democrats.
Polis said the policy statement is aimed directly at two groups--Democrats who prefer federal education legislation do nothing but direct money to states and school districts, and Republicans who want no federal role in education. Polis also hopes it will function as a rebuke of a Senate bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been criticized by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and civil-rights groups alike as being soft on accountability. The coalition statement doesn't take a position on the Senate bill, however.
"At its worst, [the Senate bill] represents an unholy alliance between those on my side of the aisle who want to preserve the status quo and those on other side of the aisle that want to abolish the federal role in education," Polis said. "I don't want to work with a worse product. I'd rather have no product."
Polis knows what he's talking about, having served on the Colorado Board of Education and founded two charter schools for at-risk youth. His reputation is that of a staunch education reformer who favors teacher evaluations and accountability for student achievement, issues that sometimes can be problematic for teachers' unions and Republicans who seek a smaller federal government. He aligns himself with President Obama, Duncan, and House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., who helped write the landmark No Child Left Behind law.
As House members in the minority, the New Democrats' political sway varies by issue. On education, it could have a big impact because the group's votes will be needed to pass any education reauthorization bill; a sizable group of House Republicans would oppose any measure that does not eliminate the Education Department.
The New Democrats' principles on education hit the pressure points that excite the likes of Duncan, Miller, and education-reform advocates, but they stop short of making controversial proposals, such as merit pay for teachers, that would divide Democrats. On accountability, the policy statement calls for "setting annual achievement and growth goals for student subgroups and holding all schools accountable for making progress."
On teacher effectiveness, the group calls for annual evaluations to assess teacher and principal effectiveness "based on multiple valid and reliable measures of student learning." In other words, student performance matters.
The statement also endorses the Education Department's competitive-grant programs to encourage state and school administrators to be creative in addressing problem areas. Duncan's signature program of this ilk--Race to the Top--has been given less and less funding over the past several years by congressional appropriators, but it is still considered within the administration to be among the most successful of Obama's domestic policy programs.