Putting the Schools In the U.S. Senate

If this is how 2009 is starting off, it is going to be a very fun and interesting year for Eduflack and the education improvement community.  Word out of Colorado this afternoon is that Gov. Bill Ritter has selected a replacement for U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who is moving over to be Secretary of the Interior.  Over the past few weeks, a lot of names of been mentioned for the Senate seat, including those of sitting congressmen and the Denver mayor.  So why is Gov. Ritter’s selection so exciting for Eduflack?  Ritter has chosen Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to represent the Centennial State in the senior legislative body.

Many will remember that President-elect Obama was vetting Bennet for the EdSec position, with teams on the ground in Denver up until Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan was named Educator in Chief.  Now Bennet moves into a far more interesting position, becoming a U.S. Senator with hopefully a seat on the Senate HELP Committee.
For the life of me, I can’t remember a former schools superintendent serving in the U.S. Senate.  We’ve had educators and professors and college presidents, sure.  But there are few who can speak on issues such as urban education, equity, and school improvement like the Denver Schools superintendent.  Ritter’s announcement is a big win for public education, a big win for reformers, and a big win for the Senate as it plans for NCLB reauthorization.
In moving from the Rocky Mountains to Capitol Hill, Bennet brings an interesting portfolio of moving policies into action.  His background in city government and private business show a leader who can bring together stakeholders and recognizes the needs and roles all audiences can play in the process.  What can that mean for federal education policy?  Let’s look at two areas where Denver has led.
Issue One — Teacher performance pay.  Many would say that Denver’s ProComp program is the only truly successful teacher incentive program out there.  The President-elect has already gone on record in favor of performance pay for teachers.  Bennet is now in a position to take the lessons learned in Denver (both the positives and the negatives), and apply them on the federal stage.  If EdSec in-waiting Duncan is going to seriously look at teacher performance pay (particularly with ED’s EPIC program holding hundreds of millions of dollars for such efforts), there is no better ally and advocate on the Hill to lead the effort than Bennet.
Issue Two — STEM education.  Colorado has been a leader in Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics education, with the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Math, Science, Technology, and Engineering Education Coalition (COMSTEC) taking the lead.  Denver, and its public schools have been at the center of it all.  Working with the University of Colorado-Denver and the Governor’s Office, Denver Public Schools has been working hard promoting STEM education and linking STEM literacy with economic possibilities.  Bennet can immediately become a leading voice for the intersection between education and the economy.
Add to that Bennet’s exposure to student equity issues, charter schools, the achievement gap, ELL, and other such issues, and you have a real platform and real experiences to build upon.  The education community has been eager to have a practitioner in charge on Maryland Avenue.  Now they also have an experienced practitioner writing policy under the Capitol dome.  If Senators Reid and Kennedy are smart, they’ll quickly give Bennet a seat on the HELP Committee.  And Bennet should be tasked with moving the Obama education platform — and NCLB reauthorization — by focusing on the school administrators and the educators necessary for the success of both.
Bennet’s soon-to-be constituents in Colorado, along with the entire school reform community, will expect a lot from Bennet.  He’ll be expected to deliver and deliver fast, particularly with a 2010 special election staring him down.  He has the opportunity to hit the ground running and make a national name for himself as a seasoned voice for education improvement.  Is it asking a lot?  Sure.  But Bennet’s ability to navigate issues such as incentive pay, charters, early childhood education, and ELL show he’s up to it.  Welcome to Washington, Mr. Bennet!

One thought on “Putting the Schools In the U.S. Senate

  1. A tip of the hat to Andy Rotherham and his Eduwonk blog. We do have a former superintendent who went on to be a U.S. Senator. South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond was Edgefield County’s superintendent of education, ending his tenure there in 1933.Clearly, the challenges facing our public schools have changed a great deal in the 75 years since a superintendent joined the U.S. Senate.

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