Democrats became more actively engaged in education reform because of President Barack Obama, said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).
Obama was a trailblazer in supporting charter schools and school choice long before he became president. During the economic crisis, more Democrats followed Obama’s lead and started to believe and preach that there are different ways to run schools.
That was one of the messages delivered by Williams, a national analyst and public speaker on education policy and politics who has reached thousands of listeners in audiences from coast to coast each year. On Tuesday, his audience was in Boise for the ED Sessions 2.0 Hot Lunch Series at the Linen Building.
“The conversation that something needs to change in education is long gone in just about every place but here,” Williams told the 60 lawmakers, educators and prominent business people. “In Idaho, it’s been my experience, that there is still push back that change needs to happen. That conversation nationally is over.”
Republican lawmakers Sen. John Goedde, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, Rep. Wendy Horman and State Superintendent Tom Luna listened as Williams handed down advice from Democratic Education Secretary Arnie Duncan to “embrace the new normal.”
“There is a huge risk that we’ll go back to the same old education system as the economy improves,” Williams said. “We should not lose the commitment to find better ways to do things.”
Also in attendance were College of Idaho president Marv Henberg, staff from Boise State University and Northwest Nazarene University and K-12 superintendents from Meridian, Boise, Caldwell and Emmett.
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One question from the audience asked what can Idaho do better. Williams said to encourage innovation and make teacher evaluations more meaningful and rigorous.
“We are very happy to test kids and reluctant to talk to teachers about what’s working and what’s not,” Williams said. “Celebrate success and have honest conversations about what’s failing.”
Colorado is a state where Idaho could learn lessons, Williams said, because the community is engaged and the different groups — teachers, administrators, trustees and patrons — have productive conversations.
The national reform movement has focused largely on rural areas and Williams admitted that is a fault of his party.
“I am intrigued with the potential in Idaho to be national leaders in rural education, not only improving it but making it more efficient,” Williams said.
Williams also said money matters, unions shouldn’t be the only voice and the “gray area can be a fun place to hang out.”
Click here to read a Q and A will Williams.