How about one cheer for President Obama and Arne Duncan on the subject of school reform?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been criticized, and rightly so, for encouraging his employees to attend a rally held by Al Sharpton. While the event was not, strictly speaking, partisan (it wasn’t a function of, say, the Democratic National Committee), it certainly had political overtones. Still, it’s time to give Duncan and his boss one cheer for their encouragement of some necessary school reforms.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama praised the idea of charter schools. His campaign “blueprint” (PDF) said “Obama and Biden will double funding for the Federal Charter School Program to support the creation of more successful charter schools.” Even though I think we need less rather than more federal funding for schools, such a call is a clear expression of support for an idea that, aside from homeschooling, is the most widely used form of school choice in use today.

The Race to the Top initiative (call it “slush fund” if you like) called for states with caps on charter schools to lift those caps. That’s to the good; caps – quotas on the number of charter schools – are a draconian limit that have no place in effective education policy. In a speech before the NEA, Duncan observed that tenure that protects ineffective teachers and spoke in favor of some form of merit pay. (Merit pay is good in the abstract, but there are many methodological problems to work on before it is widely implemented.)

So a cheer to Obama and Duncan. But of course the question in politics is “what have you done for me lately?”, and when it comes to Race to the Top, the answer might be, “not much.” Rick Hess, an education policy specialist with AEI, warned in a blog post at Education Week that most of the criteria used for Race to the Top applications avoid “mundane efforts to clear away anachronistic policies” and instead reward compliance with status-quo checklists of “best practices.”

So only a cheer and nothing more. Or perhaps even half a cheer. But education reformers should take courage in any case. The actions of Obama and Duncan, as tentative as they are, signal that even leaders in the party that is the natural home of the NEA recognize that things must improve. Then add in groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, The New Teacher Project, and the National Council on Teacher Quality, and we’re starting to see glimpses of support for important reforms in places where we might least expect it.