Coming Together to Kill Education Reform

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Tennessee Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander is trying to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act

A new consensus is emerging in education politics. But can the center hold? And would reformers even want it to? Bipartisanship is supposed to be a good thing — except for when Republicans and Democrats come together to try to paper over our education problems. That's what worries me about the recent string of seemingly positive events:

1. On Sept. 14, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander introduced an ambitious bill to overhaul George W. Bush's landmark No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced more rigorous school accountability measures but is now four years overdue for a reauthorization (read: revamping) by Congress. Alexander, a Republican who served as George H. W. Bush's Secretary of Education, was joined by three other influential GOP members in sponsoring the legislation, which aims to give states much more latitude about how to hold schools accountable and deal with persistently low-performing ones.

2. On Sept. 23, President Obama announced the administration's plan to give states waivers from some of No Child Left Behind's major provisions.

3. On Sept. 26, two rising stars in the Republican Party — Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker — refused in a high-profile setting to join in the calls being made by GOP presidential candidates to abolish the Department of Education. Instead, when I asked them about this during a "town hall" conversation with eight other governors at NBC's Education Nation summit in New York City, McDonnell and Walker talked about partnering with Washington, not dismantling ties to it.

Sounds great, right? So why do these things make me nervous? Let's start with the Alexander bill. It wouldn't eliminate the Department of Education, but it would significantly curtail federal involvement in education policy. Under Alexander's plan, federal funds would be combined into a few large programs and school accountability would be left to the states except for the lowest-performing 5% of schools. The bill would not only undo George W. Bush's education reforms, but many of Bill Clinton's as well.

That sounds pretty radical, but not as much as you might think given what the Obama Administration is proposing. In a speech delivered at the White House, the President announced specifics for his plan to grant states waivers from certain aspects of No Child Left Behind in exchange for agreeing to undertake certain reforms, such as improving teacher evaluations and adopting college- and career-ready standards. The administration's proposal includes more requirements than the Alexander plan — states would have to apply and go through a review process to earn a waiver — and more accountability for student performance. But as with the Alexander bill, the administration's plan would allow schools in the middle of the pack in terms of performance, including suburban schools where groups of minority or low-income students lag behind, to be overlooked by state accountability systems.

Which brings me to the governors, who are in charge of their states' public school systems. At the Education Nation event, Governor McDonnell, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, rightly lauded the quality of Virginia's education standards. He neglected to mention, however, that Virginia's methods for holding schools accountable for meeting those standards are nowhere near as laudatory. As evidence of the severe disconnect between the state's high standards on paper and lax enforcement in practice, consider that 98% of schools in Virginia — a state system I know well, since I served as a member of its board of education for four years — are fully accredited under the state's rules. But just 22% of the Hispanic students and 14% of the African-American students who attend these schools are reading at the "proficient" level on the National Assessment of Education Progress by eighth grade. Hard to square that with a 98% success rate.

It's not fair to single out Virginia; many other states have similar approaches that mask poor performance. And it's also worth noting that some states are emerging as leaders on school improvement through a range of strategies. But when you look at the country as a whole, and the decades it has spent trying and failing to reform our education system, it is fair to question the wisdom of handing key aspects of education policy back to the states given their track record and the status quo. Washington may not yet be a great partner on school improvement, but it's hardly the cause of our educational problems. Nor does it make sense to give up on federal oversight and let the state foxes do whatever they want with the hen houses.

Rumors are circulating that Congress is going to seriously try to get something done on education this fall, if only to push back on the administration's plan to rewrite NCLB through the use of waivers. If the eagerness to demonstrate some bipartisanship on education turns into a stampede, it's not hard to see common ground between what Republican governors, Republican leaders in Washington, and the Obama Administration want — and that means a lot less accountability, especially since the administration has a rocky record of standing up to Republican demands. Given the national imperative of improving our schools and the mixed record of states, perhaps it's worth pausing to ask if this is really a bipartisanship worth celebrating.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday. Find him on Twitter at @arotherham. You can also continue the discussion on TIME's Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.