Where Should the Dems Be on Education?


The forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) will require political parties to define their positions on public education. In a recent article in the American Prospect, analyst Kevin Carey of Education Sector argues that the Democratic Party has lost its edge on education issues, allowing Republicans to narrow their historical disadvantage in the field. On September 19th, Carey joined Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) and education consultant Bella Rosenberg for a lively discussion on Capitol Hill to consider whether Carey has provided a compelling case for Democrats to rethink their “politics of education.” Dana Goldstein, a staff writer at the American Prospect, moderated the discussion.

At the top of the discussion, Carey quickly reminded the audience that eight years ago when Democrats should have assumed leadership over education, it was George W. Bush who emerged as “the education President.” Beginning with the 2000 election, he argued, Democrats lost their opportunity to take control of education in the same way they assumed leadership over other issues such as climate change and health care reform. At a time when they were arguing for more education, he believes that Democrats should have been arguing for better education. Ultimately, Carey challenged Democrats to embrace teacher merit pay, standardized testing, and more support for charter schools as a means to reassert themselves in the education arena.

In her comments, education consultant Bella Rosenberg stressed that the achievement gaps cited in Carey’s article emerge well before children enter school and are related to factors outside schools’ control. To be successful, “we need to adopt reforms that embrace a schools plus approach,” she said. Rosenberg made the point that ultimately, schools cannot move forward alone and that for reforms to work they must be part of a comprehensive reform package across several arenas, including housing policy and children’s health.

When asked what he thought about current Democratic approaches to school reform, Rep. Davis noted that some members of his party are tempted to fixate on NCLB in a way that leads them to see solutions in terms of stark contrasts. He made the point that Democrats do not have to choose between accountability and other measures; Just as Democrats can vote for both increases in federal education funding and for increased funding for S-CHIP, Democrats can also “be for accountability and public schools.”

At the close of the discussion, all participants agreed that policymakers and political candidates need to put aside personal interests and take up the cause of school reform policy with renewed urgency. To do otherwise would be a great disservice to America’s most important constituents, our nation’s children and youth.


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Opening Remarks

  • The Hon. Artur Davis (D-AL)
    U.S. House of Representatives
  • MaryEllen McGuire
    Director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation
Featured Speakers
  • Kevin Carey
    Research and Policy Manager, Education Sector
  • Bella Rosenberg
    Education Policy Consultant
  • Dana Goldstein
    Staff Writer, The American Prospect