Out With the Old, In With the New: Education Reform Cannot Be Compromised

Schoolchildren hold balloons while on campus at the Vidyagyan Leadership Academy in Bulandshahr on December 16,2012. The stat
Schoolchildren hold balloons while on campus at the Vidyagyan Leadership Academy in Bulandshahr on December 16,2012. The state of art school imparts free education and accommodation to the poorest and poor children from villages of district state of India. AFP PHOTO/SAJJAD HUSSAIN (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Among many traditions as we close one year and begin a new one are lists of what is "in" and "out." At the end of 2012, compromise was definitely "in." And no wonder. Staring over the precipice of a fiscal cliff, the American people couldn't understand why politicians can't seem to agree on things. Compromise, it is thought, is an unadulterated good.

I don't want to be the skunk at the national compromising garden party, but as we look back at 2012 and ahead to 2013, when it comes to education reform we should think twice about "compromise" being the watchword. Why? Because when education reformers negotiate with unions or others opposed to fundamental changes in K-12 education, often the only thing compromised is children's education. Conversely, some of the best, most sustainable results come from those who are called "uncompromising." A litany of examples demonstrates that intransigence in education reform isn't a bad thing.

Education reformers were heartbroken in November when Indiana's incumbent Tony Bennett lost his race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. But despite the unions' successful effort to install a reform opponent, Indiana is likely to remain, as many have termed it, the "reformiest" state in the nation. That's because Governor Mitch Daniels, Tony Bennett and many other reformers (all of whom were once called "uncompromising") laid the legal groundwork to allow choice and accountability to flourish in Indiana.

There are good and bad education reform laws. The bad ones -- often "compromise solutions" -- make people feel good but do little to enhance choice or accountability in a state. Years ago, Indiana codified good measures into law, so despite Tony Bennett's loss, schoolchildren will continue to benefit. To see what's ahead, Indianans can look to Florida, which enacted holistic reforms in the late 1990s that yielded choice, accountability, funds for charters and a system for grading schools. These measures are now bearing fruit. Among many other positive results, recent studies show that Florida schoolchildren are reading better than students in other states, and other nations.

The education reform movement, however, will continue to lose ground if state legislatures keep enacting weak, watered down legislation. To wit: Pennsylvania, where everyone worshipped at the altar of compromise during their two year battle over school choice. What survived was almost worse than nothing -- an extremely modest tax-credit funded scholarship program for a limited number of kids in failing schools that requires painstaking effort to raise money, rather than permit public funds to follow kids equitably to schools that fit them best.

Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation two years ago to expand the state's charter program, but left control in the hands of school districts, which are notoriously anti-competition. Tennessee will eventually get what it needs -- an expansion of groups authorized to approve charters -- but for two years students have languished in bad schools while districts throw obstacles in the way of more school choices.

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie called his 2012 teacher evaluation bill "historic," and, while a step in the right direction, it was hardly groundbreaking. It supposedly "requires" school districts to tie evaluations to performance, but nothing in the law forces them to do so. Some have and will indeed use the law to move out ineffective teachers, but most won't have the stomach. That doesn't stop New Jersey lawmakers from patting themselves on the back, claiming to have "done" teacher quality legislation.

Another example: North Carolina had struggled under a mediocre charter law, which limited numbers and left power in the hands of an unfriendly state board. Legislators finally lifted the cap and basked in the praise, but prospective charters still must negotiate a cumbersome approval process and are often dismissed arbitrarily. As to fixing the problem, one lawmaker told me it was too hard because of "all we went through already." That's what you get with "compromise" legislation -- lawmakers exhaust political will on a bad result. Fortunately for North Carolinians, 2013 will usher in a new crop of lawmakers who believe in expanded parental choice and options for kids. But despite the will, it will be a struggle with the powerful education establishment, the Blob.

The good news, as we look ahead to a new year, is that some of these states and their neighbors -- all in the south -- appear poised to show the rest of the nation the positive changes that can result from good legislation. In addition to North Carolina and Tennessee making necessary adjustments to their laws, lawmakers in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma plan to expand substantive choices offered to students and parents, as will elected officials in Mississippi and Alabama, who may also address fixing the teacher quality problem that plagues their states.

It won't be easy. Teachers unions and their school district allies oppose fundamental education reforms. They have co-opted the language of reform, leading many observers to wrongly declare that the unions are coming along. But their definition of reform and compromise consists of supporting only toothless, ineffective measures that leave all the power in the hands of the traditional system's adults. Lawmakers must be clear that when the status quo embraces reform measures, it is reform in name only. The two exemplars that did not compromise -- Florida and Indiana -- demonstrate that enacting substantive, structural education reform laws yields dramatic results.

When it comes to the gritty, detailed business of writing and enacting education reform laws, we must remember what is on the table when we sit down to negotiate -- the ability of all children to get a good education, regardless of their race, income or zip code.

On that we should not compromise.