WASHINGTON, D.C. (Jan. 28) -- For all of the partisan rancor surrounding President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, there was one domestic area where the president could claim legitimate bipartisan achievement: education.
During his first year in office, Obama has drawn praise from conservatives like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for his approach to improving the nation's schools. The administration's centerpiece initiative, a program called Race to the Top, has been lauded by some reform activists for injecting competition into the federal grant process. It also has been credited with nudging states to adopt higher standards and more accountability for schools.
It was no surprise, then, that at a time when the White House is trying to renew its cross-party appeal, Obama chose to devote a significant chunk of his speech to education. And it was a rare issue that escaped withering criticism in most Republican responses.
"This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools," the president said. "The idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.
In the official Republican response to the State of the Union, Virginia's new governor, Robert McDonnell, highlighted the GOP's agreement with Obama on education, making no mention of policy differences.
"The president and I agree on expanding the number of high-quality charter schools and rewarding teachers for excellent performance," McDonnell said. "More school choices for parents and students mean more accountability and greater achievement."
Two senior Republican congressmen also praised the education portion of Obama's speech. The ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, said Obama and Duncan "have indicated a surprising willingness to take on education special interests."
Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., said he had "every intention" of working with the administration on further reforms, including the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Much of the GOP support for Obama's education initiatives stems from the administration's apparent willingness to buck traditional Democratic allies like the teachers' unions in calling for an expansion of charter schools and "pay for performance" in teacher compensation. The administration has been able to hold the support from the Democratic base because of its pledges to dramatically increase federal spending on schools. The stimulus package alone contained more than $100 billion for education initiatives, including the "Race to the Top" program and aid to states to prevent teachers from being laid off.
Great - the one bill Obama will actually sign into law will be the NCLB reauthorization.
Make no mistake, it's going to be a bad one - longer school days, longer school years, teacher evaluation and pay tied to test scores, more school "turnaround" (i.e., creating more charter schools.)
I am still hoping that some Repubs kill this bill just because they don't want to give him any victories before 2012, but I don't think that's going to happen.
I just don't think they will be able to refrain from helping a Democratic president break the unions.