Why Conservatives Should Applaud Obama's Efforts at Education Reform

Even those critics who give President Obama failing grades on the economy, health care, and foreign policy should give him high marks for his bold and innovative stab at education reform.

That includes conservatives. Not just because chambers of commerce and other GOP-friendly business groups constantly complain about the mediocrity of our public schools and the less than stellar students they produce -- students who later become middling job applicants. Not just because Obama's emphasis on testing and accountability mirrors what President George W. Bush attempted with the No Child Left Behind Act. And not just because Obama’s initiative -- dubbed “Race to the Top” -- emphasizes competition by making states challenge each other for more than $4 billion in education money by adopting reform measures intended to tie teachers to the products they turn out, which is a big improvement over how we’ve done this for years, doling out the majority of funds to the states with the most political clout.

All that’s true. But Obama also deserves support because he’s making all the right enemies -- educational bureaucrats, teachers unions, other defenders of the status quo, etc. And he’s doing it with public comments that are honest, refreshing, and insightful.

Obama seems to intuitively understand at least three things about the public school system: that it is plagued by low expectations -- not just for students, but also for parents, schools, and whole communities; that too many educators and politicians treat public schools as if they exist for the benefit of the adults who teach there rather than the kids who are supposed to learn there; and that those intent on preserving the status quo in our schools will resist tooth and nail any attempt to hold them accountable by linking teachers to the performance of their students.

The president demonstrated that again this month with a powerful speech at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, WI. He knows enough about education reform to know that he has to start by tearing down the “firewall laws” that exist in many states -- thanks to the lobbying efforts of teachers unions -- to prevent school districts from factoring in student performance when evaluating teachers.