Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008
Obama and Education
By Amanda Ripley / Washington

Michelle Rhee is a Democrat, but she came very close to voting for John McCain in November. She chose Barack Obama because one of her closest friends had begged her to give him a chance. "It was a very hard decision," she says. "I'm somewhat terrified of what the Democrats are going to do on education."

Like most other Democrats, Obama is allied with the teachers' unions, which generally oppose efforts to weaken tenure rules that protect teachers from being fired or to pay them on the basis of merit. The biggest teachers' union, the National Education Association (NEA), has 3.2 million members and committed $50 million to Obama's campaign. Now that the election is over, Rhee is filled with hope and dread about whom Obama will pick to be Education Secretary. (See pictures of teens and how they would vote.)

Obama is gifted at making people on both sides of a problem believe he is with them, and on few issues has this been more apparent than on education.Before he won the Democratic nomination, Obama gave education reformers reason to dream. He introduced a bill in the Senate to reward good teachers and rate effectiveness using, in part, a "statistical method to measure the influence of a teacher." It was opposed by the NEA. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he sounded as if he were channeling urban-school reformers like Rhee: "There's no reason why an experienced, highly qualified and effective teacher shouldn't earn $100,000," he wrote. "There's just one catch. In exchange for more money, teachers need to become more accountable for their performance--and school districts need to have greater ability to get rid of ineffective teachers." Then, in a speech before the NEA in 2007, he endorsed merit pay, provoking scattered boos from the audience. Far more than Hillary Clinton, Obama seemed to be the Democrat for change in schools.

But in the campaign's final stretch, Obama was much more muted on education; it was McCain who made the boldest case for reform. And Obama's decision to elevate campaign adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor whose positions are often aligned with those of the unions, to lead his education transition team worries the reform community. "The idea that Obama was wholeheartedly behind school reform might have been the triumph of hope over evidence," says Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

Although state and local governments pay most of the bill for schools, the feds set the national direction--especially since the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, which established standards for measuring student progress. A new Education Secretary could, if he or she so desired, gut the accountability provisions in No Child Left Behind with the stroke of a pen. And in Washington, where the budget is controlled by Congress, Obama's leadership could give Rhee enormous momentum--or shut her down. "It would send a huge message if this Administration actually took a side on where we are with the union negotiations here," she says. The question is which side Obama is on.