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Health Care's Loss, Education's Gain?

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I don't usually watch the Sunday TV talk shows - Meet the Press, This Week, etc. - because they tend to be conventional-wisdom fests. The same closed circle of pundits, most of them self-satisfied white men, (with an occasional token woman or person of color thrown in for diversity's sake) spout partisan talking points or regurgitate op-ed columns from the Sunday newspapers. They form an echo chamber, calcifying truths that are out-of-date as soon as they leave the speakers' mouths.

This past Sunday, though, I was in Chicago visiting family, and watched a bit of This Week (the ABC entry in the spin competition). And lo and behold commentators Matthew Dowd, a Republican partisan, and Cokie Roberts (the insider's insider, and a journalist of sorts) came up with something interesting. They teamed up to suggest how President Obama might recover from the apparent loss of his health care initiative, given the election of Republican Scott Brown to Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat.

Dowd: "Actually, I think the best thing...for him to do is get in a fight with the Democrats right away... because the Democrats right now are as less liked as the Republicans are in Congress. And so if he demonstrates, 'Listen, I got elected because I was going to be a post-partisan president. That's why I got elected. I was going to bring the country together. I was going to stop the dysfunction up the - up the street. I was going to stop that. And the dysfunction belongs in both political parties, and I'm going to take on the Democrats on something big and get it done and work with the Republicans to do it.' I think that's what the country wants."

Roberts: "A place he could do it is education, and he does have a very interesting education proposal that's running into problems with Democrats."

I'm not so sure that Race to the Top is "running into problems with Democrats." In fact, when the U.S. Department of Education released its "final guidance" on the multi-billion dollar competitive grant program, some education advocates were disappointed that Obama and Arne Duncan had softened their language to appease teachers' unions and other entrenched interests aligned with traditional Democratic Party positions.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last November, some Race to the Top supporters were unhappy that Obama and Duncan decided to put less emphasis on test results and the use of charter schools as a reform strategy than they had in earlier drafts.

Without a doubt, Race to the Top's emphasis on real, measurable change still contains ample elements designed to make unions and other interests squirm. And, as we've discussed on our blog, some states have been aggressive in writing new laws to meet the R2T criteria, while Colorado, among others, got a bit weak-kneed in its final application.

But what Roberts and Dowd said Sunday made me wonder whether the political savants within the Obama administration will see health care's likely demise as an opportunity to dig in and hold their ground on pushing for education reform "we can believe in."

Let's take an optimistic view for a moment. If health care reform does in fact wither away, Obama's advisers may tell him to make real education reform his signature domestic issue. As Dowd suggested, to demonstrate his independence, and to counter his growing reputation for passivity, Obama may decide to steel his spine, and Duncan's, and award large Race to the Top grants exclusively to those few states that demonstrated in their applications that they believe only significant steps toward change will make a difference.

Some states passed new laws that would tie teacher compensation to student growth. Yes, doing this is fraught with risk and uncertainty. But it's also one of the only ways to begin changing the way we hold ourselves accountable for the dismal state of public education in this country.

Also, some states demonstrated a willingness to tackle the contentious issue of teacher tenure. Others lifted charter school caps, or liberalized their charter laws.

If Obama wants to show that he's post-partisan, and that he's not going to make the mistake again of allowing backroom deals to undermine a key domestic priority, then he is going to have to lavish largess on those states that submitted truly bold Race to the Top applications. reform-minded Democrats and, yes even some Republicans, will be supportive.

That might not bode well for Colorado. But I'm willing to sacrifice Colorado's first round application to the greater interest of seeing some real reform occur, somewhere, anywhere.

And if Obama and Duncan stick to their guns, perhaps Colorado and other states will learn a lesson, and will get tougher in Round Two.