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Monday, February 18, 2008

Education conference drew policy gurus

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— Education policy gurus recently drew crowds to the New Haven Lawn Club for the Yale School of Management’s second annual Education Leadership Conference, where conversation centered on “innovations in education.”
Panelists tackled topics including “How Technology is Changing the Way Schools are Designed, Managed and Measured” and “Prioritizing Education: The 2008 Elections as a Catalyst for Change.”
Panelists from both sides of the political spectrum discussed how to make education a priority of the current presidential race, with Democrat and Republican speakers both claiming education has been put on the back burner.
“Education is cheap applause lines,” said panelist Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. While Democratic candidates’ Web sites may feature meatier policy positions, on the campaign trail little is said about education beyond rejection of No Child Left Behind, panelists said.
“No Child Left Behind has become a four-letter word, not a serious debate about the achievement gap,” said Marc Lampkin, executive director of Strong American Schools, and a former campaign adviser for President Bush.
Several questioned whether teachers’ unions have stalled reform efforts, and the political value of union ties. Participants also mulled what panelist Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, characterized as “tribal warfare” between advocates of various school models.
Lampkin asked conference attendees to raise a hand if they had voted in the most recent presidential primary. Nearly every hand shot up.
Next, he asked for the hands of those who considered education their first priority in deciding that vote. Only three hands raised.
“I’m black, grew up poor,” Lampkin said, adding he doesn’t think of his children as part of the achievement gap separating minority and white achievement. “People worry about their kids, their family. That’s why we need to talk about economics,” he said.
Alex Johnston, executive director of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, claimed there is a “clear need for strong national leadership. There are 50 states doing 50 different things. Some are doing nothing.” While he called the Oval Office the best “bully pulpit” to push education reform, he said local coalitions must generate visible support before politicians will follow. “We ask too much of our politicians,” he said. “They’re not going to commit political suicide for education reform.”
Williams claimed the Democratic Party “could not exist without the teachers’ union, but it’s also killing us.”
“In some ways, it’s built up more than it should be ... things can be taken off the table too soon,” he said.
Barr’s schools are unionized, and he claimed there is a “generational opportunity to remake unions in a positive way.”
Jonathan Gyurko, United Federation of Teachers’ special assistant for charter school development, said after the panel, “There is ample evidence that collective bargaining agreements jointly negotiated between school districts and teachers’ representatives include flexibility to support cooperative change.”
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or ebenton@nhregister.com.

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