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Early Obama adviser waiting to see on schools strategy

The adviser said Obama’s strategy has to stretch beyond simply, “Be like Joel.” Above, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lauding New York City as a model last year. An early adviser to President Obama on education issues, Christopher Edley, the dean of the law school at UC-Berkeley, today praised the president for following through on his promise to make schools a priority despite the tough times. But Edley said that whether Obama is pursuing the right education policies is unclear.

“The question is whether he is going to pick the right strategy to advance that,” Edley said, speaking on an education panel at the New York Public Library sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and Intel Corporation.

His skepticism called to mind the ongoing debate inside the Democratic Party about how to transform public schools — and also cast it in a different light. Edley’s concern, he said, is that the Obama administration could end up relying too heavily on competition as a lever to spur change. But forcing schools to compete for students and to stay open will not alone improve them. Schools also need to be regulated, he said.

Edley, who taught the president when he was a professor at Harvard Law School, served on Obama’s transition team.

He said he concluded at that time that Obama understands the importance of improving public schools, and that he is proving his commitment as president. “I think what’s remarkable about what the administration has done so far is, I think, it’s taken on more things and done more things than any reasonable person would have expected,” Edley said.

But, joking that he was glad that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was not in the room, he called the administration’s early efforts “expansive but to a large degree temporizing.” “Will we do something more than the Race to the Top? Will we revisit the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? Will we revisit the Higher Education Act?” Edley asked.

Edley said that transforming schools requires not just an infusion of competition into the system, but also regulation. He said that while some charter schools are excellent, “most of them are schlock,” and added that school choice does not provide a way to export best practice to the majority of schools. “I genuinely think that what’s needed is a balance between a competitive approach and a regulatory approach,” Edley said.

He also seemed to dispute the amount of attention on New York City, whose school reforms Duncan has praised and encouraged others to replicate. “It is not a national education strategy to go to 14,000 school districts in the country and just say, ‘Be like Joel. Just be like Joel.'”

Chancellor Joel Klein, who also attended Harvard Law School, also sat on the panel, as did Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania. Both Klein and Gutmann emphasized the importance of using competition as a lever to force public schools to improve.

Gutmann described higher education as the “shining star” of American education, arguing that that would not be the case if it weren’t for the country’s mix of public and private universities. “The question isn’t to make K through 12 exactly like higher education,” Gutmann said. “But what you can do is recognize that competition is healthy.”

Despite the strands of disagreement, the three panelists spent most of their time laughing and agreeing. When Klein complained that unlike either of them he does not have tenure and must choose his words carefully (he was answering a question about whether it’s really possible to fight on behalf of equity and on behalf of economic competitiveness at the same time), Edley replied, “When you’re done in New York, you can work for me. I’ll give you tenure in a minute.”

Klein said that he agreed with Edley about the problem of low-performing charter schools. “I’m not so interested in the label,” Klein said. “I’m interested in whether it’s high-performing or low-performing.”

UPDATE: Just to be clear, though Edley pushed back on Obama’s strategy, the event was a Klein love-fest. “What a great role model Joel is,” Gutmann said. And Edley also said he would accept the “presupposition” that Klein is doing great things in New York City.