WASHINGTON As the Obama administration seeks to drum up support for a rewrite of No Child Left Behind, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is proposing to bring to the national stage many of the ideas he put to work as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
In the process, he is burnishing a reputation as a centrist and pragmatic education reformer, who has gained support for many of his ideas from President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and many in his own political party and also some important players from across the aisle.
As the former superintendent of Denvers public schools, Bennet placed an emphasis on giving schools flexibility and room for innovation, while at the same time setting high standards for performance.
He won accolades for an evaluation model that tracked individual student progress year to year as opposed to a more common system of comparing the scores of one years fourth-graders and another years fourth-graders and spurred fights with the union over a pay-for-performance plan for teachers.
In the Senate, Bennet is working closely with the Obama administration and from within the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to push for reforms to No Child Left Behind. The law, a signature initiative of former President George W. Bush, created benchmarks that schools must meet to show they are making yearly progress. Schools that miss the targets are sanctioned or face a state takeover or shutdown.
Bennet has said the law, though well-intentioned, is overly rigid in its standards and fails to reward success. His proposed changes include using a student evaluation system similar to Colorados, reducing regulatory red tape and creating systems that would encourage top teachers and principals to serve in underperforming schools.
One of his ideas for a national teacher corps which had similar elements to a teacher residency program that he helped start in Denver was included in Obamas proposed budget. It would provide grants for schools that have strong teacher training programs so they could award scholarships for new teachers to serve in failing schools upon graduation. It also would provide those new teachers who are particularly effective with teaching licenses that are portable across states.
In addition, Bennet recently teamed with Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee who also is known for his leadership on education. The two announced Thursday that they would introduce legislation that would create a national task force to find ways to reduce regulation and improve testing systems. They also said they were immediately creating working groups in their home states with the same purpose.
Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said Bennets work in Denver Public Schools is an important aspect of his reputation in Congress.
His own background gives him tremendous credibility on these issues, she said. His knowledge of these issues puts him a step ahead of most of his colleagues, theres no question.
Van Schoales, executive director of Education Reform Now, said Bennets philosophy is notable.
I would categorize (Bennet) in this breed of reformers who are relatively new to the scene in the last five or six years who are just much more practically minded, Schoales said. They dont care whether or not its new math or old math or its balanced literacy or phonics, they just want something that works.
Bennet has long said that the best ideas for reform are from the ground up. He spent most mornings as a superintendent meeting with principals to hear their ideas something he often still does as a senator.
The best ideas come from outside of Washington, and it is vital that we bring the voices, ideas and aspirations of teachers, principals, parents and students to the U.S. Senate, said Bennet in an email.
Whether his ideas will garner the widespread support of Republicans, who are generally wary of federal involvement in education and who have increased their numbers in Congress, has yet to be seen.
There are lots of Republicans who ran in 2010 and who felt the message was that they want the federal government to play a less active roll in public policy, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. They might like and respect Senator Bennet and may even support many of his ideas at the state or local level, but that doesnt mean that hes going to find Republicans eager to support proposals that increase the scope of the federal role in education.
Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said earlier this week that he wont rush reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. He also said the House will split reauthorization into smaller pieces, rather than passing a comprehensive bill.
Karen Frantz is a student at American University and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.