Editor's note: The following column originally appeared on TheHill.com.
Here’s Whoopi Goldberg on America’s schools today: “To me, bad teachers don’t do anybody any good. So the unions need to recognize that parents are not going to stand for it anymore.”
Here’s New York Times columnist Frank Bruni: “There’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class [teachers] with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.”
Note that these voices shouting for school reform are coming from the left. For the first time, moderate Democrats — from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — are gaining support from the cultural left for school reform. For the first time, Congress is facing rising calls to reject the status quo in education from both ends of the political spectrum.
Another new dynamic this school year is the success of a California lawsuit that led to a ruling this summer against tenure systems that protect ineffective teachers.
The new reality creates new political possibilities in Congress.
In both the Senate and the House, new players are primed to bring open minds and new energy to the debate over the subpar performance of American schools against global competition.
The biggest change is coming in the Senate.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is retiring at the end of this term as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
That could open the chair to pro-reform centrist Democrats such as Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, the former superintendent of Denver schools and a supporter of school reform. Bennet favors paying teachers based on performance.
If Republicans gain the Senate majority, Harkin’s replacement could be one of the senior Republicans on the committee, Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee or Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Both support charters and vouchers.
Change is also coming to the education debate in the House.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) is term-limited in the position as head of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The frontrunners to succeed Kline as Chairman are Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) — all of whom have long histories of supporting school choice.
This change in Congressional leadership stirs optimism for getting beyond the tired old fights over efforts to renew President Bush’s reform plan — No Child Left Behind — and GOP efforts to obstruct President Obama’s plan to use federal dollars to attract states toward education reform — Race to the Top.
One example of a new idea that might now get a second look is the Scholarships for Kids Act. Earlier this year I wrote about Sen. Alexander’s efforts, in partnership with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), to pass the legislation that directs existing federal education money to voucher programs for low-income families. It has been stalled in committee.
Under new Senate leadership, the Scholarships for Kids Act and similar reforms will have new life.
The coming changes on Capitol Hill reflect the shifting politics of education reform around the country.
Even in politically liberal New York City the change is evident.
In March, 11,000 parents took to the streets to protest a plan by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to push charter schools out of city-owned property. Education reform activists in New York were able to sustain that momentum and now there are plans to expand some of the city’s most successful charter schools.
The New York Times has speculated that the successful calls from parents for the city to support charters sets the stage for future fights to get the city to approve even more charter schools.
Black and Hispanic parents played a major role in those marches. Their heavy participation represented a break with a history of uncritical alliance between minorities, as represented by the NAACP and other civil rights groups, and New York’s major teachers’ unions.
Goldberg, the black comic and TV commentator, told her large audience on ABC’s “The View” that she is not abandoning teachers but calling on them to support students.
“And teachers,” Goldberg said, “in your union, you need to say these bad teachers are making us look bad and we don’t want it.”
Bruni, the Times columnist, made a strikingly similar point: “We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.”
Goldberg and Bruni echoed a June ruling in Los Angeles County Superior Court that found teacher tenure rules are unconstitutional because they protect ineffective teachers and harm low-income children, especially racial minorities. Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote that tenure protections for bad teachers “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education.”
Treu concluded: “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a Democrat and former head of the Chicago schools, voiced support for the ruling: “The students who brought this lawsuit are…[a few of] millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students,” Duncan said. “Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems.”
This year’s opening school bell is ringing loudly in Congress. It is time for America’s top legislature to act on the crisis in the nation’s schools.