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The Deliberation Chamber

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Looking for signs of leadership in the newly formed Senate HELP Committee, I watched the entire education hearing held last Tuesday. The deliberative chamber is certainly taking it's time considering reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)--the sweeping education omnibus that in its last iteration became the driving force in American education. Taking an extra year could actually be a good thing if a coherent bill was in formation, but it's difficult to detect where bipartisan leadership will emerge on this committee to complement Miller's leading man role in the House.

Joel Klein, NYC Chancellor, and Marco Petruzzi, Green Dot CEO, headlined the panel. The Committee was at least deferential to the successful close/replace strategy that the two have executed on opposite coasts. Klein, having replaced 90 failing schools with 400 new schools, argued that districts should use outside partners given their ability to attract talent and deliver coherent solutions.

Sen. Harkin noted that the entire panel supported schools of a manageable size but desperately wanted the answer to be class size. The panel unanimously suggested teacher quality was a much more important variable. Harkin suggested that there should be a child psychologist to every classroom--this could be a long deliberation.

Senators Enzi, Murray, and Franken all suggested the Departments four turnaround strategies didn't fit rural challenges. A South Dakota superintendent said they had experimented with online learning but were back to DIY solutions. This discussion was a big strike out; the committee needs to hear from skilled and scaled operators like Connections Academy, K12, and KCDL. There is simply no way to offer high quality, high level college prep STEM nationally without incorporating online learning.

Lamar Alexander, who served as Education Secretary in the early 90s, suggested (a little disingenuously) that the feds should just override all local contracts and policies and empower governors. I'd love to see draft language on that proposal. Governors are empowered to lead, but many punt--like Charlie Crist did in Florida last week--when given an opportunity.

Michael Bennet, the senate's edu-star, seemed distracted and may not even be around for reauthorization given his primary polls.

In short, the Dems are sweating context variables and uncomfortable pressing for improvement (and losing campaign contributions). The "just say no" crowd on the other side of the isle appears unwilling to engage in real problem solving. And the chairman is waving reports from 1991.

We haven't hit bottom, but other countries are making real progress while we tread water. Greenspan may have missed the crash but he was right that in the long run it's all about education. It is time to lead.

Who will take the mantle of bipartisan education leadership that Ted Kennedy carried in 2001? Breaking with caucus leaders to do the right thing will be uncomfortable for senators but everything is at stake. And who will cross the aisle and help Miller write a great House bill?

With another round of Race to the Top applications due, which governors will step up? With a great state superintendent, Bobby Jindal has the opportunity to put Louisiana in the poll position and become the leading education governor. Who else will take a stand to convert promises into policies?

There is an opportunity to lead at every level--neighborhood, school, district, and state. It's time for folks with a backbone to say we want a great teacher in every classroom and we want a good school in every neighborhood. Once you get started, tell your senator it is time to lead.

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