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Originally published Friday, June 4, 2010 at 2:54 PM

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David Brooks / Syndicated columnist

Obama's race to sanity on education reform

The Obama approach to education could serve as a model for anybody who wants to build a center-out governing majority, writes columnist David Brooks. The administration has used federal power to incite reform, without dictating it from the top.

Syndicated columnist

Sometimes it seems as if we're doomed to fight a new culture war between orthodox liberals who have lavish faith in the power of government and orthodox conservatives who have almost no faith at all.

But occasionally a politician comes along with a more measured vision of a limited but energetic government. Recently, for example, I read a speech by a politician who gave examples of both when government had failed (the old welfare system) and when it had succeeded (the railroad legislation under Lincoln, the bank reforms under FDR and the highway system under Eisenhower). "Our government shouldn't try to guarantee results," this politician said, "but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who's willing to work hard."

That sentence struck me as a pretty good foundation for a political philosophy. It was delivered by President Barack Obama at the University of Michigan commencement last month.

Obama administration policies haven't always hewed to this limited but energetic approach. But there is one area where they sure have: education. The Obama approach to education could serve as a model for anybody who wants to build a center-out governing majority. Over the past decades, federal education policy has veered between the incredibly intrusive to the appallingly supine. The Obama administration, however, has used federal power to incite reform, without dictating it.

First, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan set up a contest. They put down $4.5 billion in Race to the Top money. They issued some general guidelines about what kind of reforms states would have to adopt to get the money. And then they fired the starting gun.

Reformers in at least 23 states have passed reform laws in hopes of getting some of the dough. Some of the state laws represent incremental progress and some represent substantial change. The administration has hung tough, demanding real reform in exchange for dollars. Over all, there's been a tremendous amount of movement in a brief time.

This is not heavy-handed Washington command-and-control. This is Washington energizing diverse communities of reformers, locality by locality, and giving them more leverage in their struggles against the defenders of the status quo.

Second, the administration used the power of the presidency to break through partisan gridlock. Over the past decade, teacher unions and their allies have become proficient in beating back Republican demands for more charters, accountability and choice. But Obama has swung behind a series of bipartisan reformers who are also confronting union rigidity.

In Rhode Island, the Central Falls superintendent, Frances Gallo, fired all the teachers at one failing school. The unions fought back. Obama sided with Gallo, sending shock waves nationwide. If the president had the guts to confront a sacred Democratic interest group in order to jolt a failing school, then change was truly in the air.

Third, the president has better aligned the education system with American values. In every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results. For decades, that didn't apply to schools, where people were rewarded even as student achievement stagnated. This administration has sided with reformers who want to change that — by measuring teacher performance. In the District of Columbia, for example, Chancellor Michelle Rhee is on the verge of getting a teacher contract that would enable her to better measure teacher performance and do something about those teachers who lag behind.

Fourth, the administration has encouraged local officials to raise educational standards. The feds are not imposing national standards. But the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have come up with blueprints of what kids should be learning in math and English. According to the Thomas Fordham Foundation, these new standards are tough, rigorous and practical. The feds are offering incentives to states to embrace these goals.

Fifth, the administration is opening the door for more fundamental reform. Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute and others have piled up data showing that it's nearly impossible to turn around failing schools. Once mediocrity infects a school culture, it's nearly always best to simply replace the existing school with another. The administration has a program called School Improvement Grants, which is helping a few remarkable local reformers, like Joel Klein of New York City, to close miserable schools and put new ones in their place.

In short, Obama's activism isn't overbearing. It's catalytic. The administration hasn't defeated the forces of the status quo, but in state after state, you're seeing reformers moving forward.

So why don't we use a similarly light but energetic, decentralized but forceful reform approach when it comes to health care, transportation or energy policy?

David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York.

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