Facebook Twitter

Concern emerges that Obama has picked a side in education wars

Has President Obama finally picked a side in the education wars? Three prominent New Yorkers are worrying that he is at least leaning — and that it’s not in the right direction.

Deborah Meier, the respected small schools pioneer, said President Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan as education secretary “leaves me sad.” Today, Diane Ravitch, the NYU historian and Meier’s blogging partner, described Duncan as “Margaret Spellings in drag.” “This is not change I can believe in,” she wrote in Politico. And on Saturday, Ann Cook, another small-school movement doyenne, said she is also concerned about  Obama’s choice of Duncan.

All three women sympathize with the “Broader, Bolder” manifesto, which argues that schools alone cannot be expected to close the achievement gap and whose members are more suspicious of popular innovations such as charter schools and test-driven accountability systems. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein leads another camp, which strongly supports test-based accountability, the No Child Left Behind law, and charter schools. Klein’s Education Equality Project circulated a rival petition.

Obama made a point of not selecting a side in the debate. He chose two top education advisers, one from each camp. And he touted his chosen education secretary, Duncan, who had signed both petitions, as a pragmatist. But in the last few weeks, concerns about Duncan have begun to surface.

Cook’s remarks came at a panel discussion in the East Village, where she used a question and answer session to raise two concerns about Obama’s education policies. One was Duncan’s remarks at a press conference in Brooklyn last week in favor of testing. The other was the Obama administration’s support for adding funds for education data systems into the stimulus package.

The Obama administration has made other moves to signal this preference. Duncan selected the man I identified as a poster boy for the Klein camp, Jon Schnur, as his close adviser. He praised Klein on a trip to New York City last week. The administration also pushed for adding funds for programs favored by the group to the stimulus package. And a spokeswoman of the opposing group, the Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, recently announced she will not join the administration.

In an interview just now, Cook said that her concerns don’t negate her support for Obama. To the contrary, she said, she feels compelled to voice her thoughts because she supports the president:

It’s easy when you’re dealing with somebody like Bush to sort of launch a campaign. But it’s equally important when people are so supportive of the president, which I am, to make sure that you don’t let things slide because you think he’s a good guy. It puts more of a responsibility on us to remain watchful. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Meier also said she’s reserving judgment. “Maybe he’s ‘purple’?” she wrote, saying she’ll reserve final judgment until Duncan announces his staff.