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Not So Fast (Part 2)

DomeNewsweek’s Jonathan Alter was ahead of the reform curve in media coverage back when it was not a popular thing to do. He’s been an avid fan of great models that provide at least some power to parents, and lots of freedom from bureaucracy. He understands the problems with unions. He even uses the language I put forth four years ago when talking about what was once called “traditional” public education and instead describes it as “conventional,” which is more to the point.

Alter’s column this week puts some heft behind the selection of Denver, CO superintendent Michael Bennet to be Ed Secretary. Could we really have another Bennett in that office? We could have a lot of fun with comparisons, but for now, we’re struck by the uncritical gaze that the otherwise keen Alter has given to both Bennet – and his interviewee of the week – Bill Gates.

Both in Alter’s estimation are reformers. He says Gates told him he believes in merit pay – and yet I’m not fully aware of any policy groups that strongly push for performance based pay changes in law which Gates is throwing money behind. The Gates Foundation is financially and morally supportive of the work of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein and clearly Michael Bennet. But what superintendents can do is limited unless their state legislatures make it easier for them to free teachers from contract rules that limit pay and operational structures. Put in layman’s terms, it is state law that often dictates what supers do – state laws that teachers’ unions fiercely lobby for and against. We’re all for in-system reform – but one shouldn’t expect every super to be as heroic – or crazy – as reformers like Rhee, et al to make change. There simply aren’t enough of them out there.

Bennet’s much praised ProComp pay effort is a baby step in the big scheme of educational success for all kids. He’s made progress, some believe, by not confronting but rather by soliciting the union’s help and thus its approval of such a plan. But such efforts depend on people, and as the challenges in Washington with its teachers’ union makes clear, it takes just one change in leadership to blow up all the progress (WTU president had all but shaken hands with Chancellor Rhee when his VP launched a recall petition and called the national AFT on him who quickly moved in with their intimidation tactics).

Bill Gates should know – and people like Alter should report – that to make real change laws must change. The KIPPs and Green Dots that he visits when he’s looking for a pick-me-up came about because some of us fought to create strong charter laws that would enable such great networks – and some lesser known independent, non-network charters – to thrive. As laws get rolled back or sustain caps that make such quality charter options limited to only a fraction of all public school kids, such networks will remain a choice for the few.

“To those who much has been given, much is expected.” Gates’ philanthropy is extraordinary but it almost seems to overlook that laws matter. If Bill Gates can get our President-elect on the phone, he should be able to similarly use his clout to make permanent changes in law that allow more great programs to flourish. Our supply of human capital reformers is simply not big enough for even his money to sustain forever.

Oh, and Jonathan, the next time you talk to Gates or others like him, ask how much money they are spending to back legislative efforts to ensure all of the above. Thanks.