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Can Democrats win by unfriending progressive education reformers? I doubt it.

Will the real Democrats please stand up? By “real” I mean those who oppose any form of school reform. It’s an absurd premise but one made more real now that we are told, with Donald Trump in the White House […]

Will the real Democrats please stand up?

By “real” I mean those who oppose any form of school reform.

It’s an absurd premise but one made more real now that we are told, with Donald Trump in the White House and privatization maven Betsy DeVoss heading the Department of Education, the time has come for centrist Democrats like the Clintons and the Obama coalition to either distance themselves from charter schools and school choice or have their progressive cards pulled.

The ultimatum says you will define your liberalism by solidarity with the agenda of teacher unionists or you will perish by association with right-wing school reformers.

How can you be both a Democrat and a school reformer? Obviously, the two are as illogical a pairing as milk and lime juice.

I am neither a liberal, progressive, nor right-wing education reformer, so I have a third-party view when I hear this argument, and see the blogger formerly known as Edushyster (aka Jennifer Berkshire) write the technically sharp but morally inert case for expelling Democrats guilty of supporting school reform.

She argues “neo-Democrats” who mimic conservatives by finding fault with national teachers’ unions have a dubious history within the party.

Today’s Democratic school reformers—a team heavy on billionaires, pols on the move, and paid advocates for whatever stripe of fix is being sold—depict their distaste for regulation, their zeal for free market solutions as au courant thinking. They rarely acknowledge their neoliberal antecedents. The self-described radical pragmatists at the Progressive Policy Institute, for instance, got their start as Bill Clinton’s policy shop, branded as the intellectual home for New Democrats. Before its current push for charter schools, PPI flogged welfare reform. In fact, David Osborne, the man so fond of likening teacher unions to arch segregationists in the south, served as Al Gore’s point person for “reinventing government.”

All of that, even if true, is a conspiracist’s crazy-making quilt that has nothing to do with why we fight for better schools.

People with children in harm’s way are prisoners to the practical and don’t have the luxury of the extravagant thinking of the privileged. Even if they were to believe school reform is about billionaires, regulation, unionism, neoliberalism, or arguments volleyed between educated white theoreticians, none of that answers the burning question “where will I put my kid on Monday”?

Berkshire tells you education reform’s lineage began with Bill Clinton which spawned a movement of republican-ish Democrats In Name Only. In her view, that veered Democrats rightward, making way for the “Obamists” and other moneyed elites attempting to remake labor and education in the image of Ayn Rand in a white pantsuit.

She sums it up as follows:

The problem is that the Democrats have little to offer that’s markedly different from what DeVos is selling. Teachers unions, regulation, and government schools are the problem, Democrats continue insisting into the void; deregulation, market competition and school choice are the fix. Four decades after the neo-Democrats set their sights on the education bureaucracy, the journey has reached its predictable destination: with a paler version of what the right has been offering all along.

While clever, her conflation of progressive education reform with Trump’s punk rock “conservatism” miseducates readers and damages public debate.

It may be true that many on the political right pursue education reform as a rebuke of government, but progressives do so because the real roots of Democratic education reform can be found in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s belief that education is “the only valid passport from poverty.”

“Our task is to help replace [the poor’s] despair with opportunity,” he said. “Better schools,” he urged, was the first step in that direction.

The 1964 Civil Right Act went further to call us to action in addressing the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color religion, or national origin in public educational institutions.”

Democrats who support charters schools, school choice, teacher evaluation, test-based accountability, outcomes-based education, and educational innovation outside of the overly bureaucratized traditional schools act in alignment with the progressive aims of social justice, not in spite of them.

And, as Liam Kerr wrote in the CommonWealth, Democrats have been day-one authors of the very reforms Berkshire strives to make controversial (like accountability, choice, and charter schools).

He says:

To dispel any doubts that charter schools have Democratic support, you need only look to the bench of national Democratic leaders who are champions of high-quality public charter schools. The first major backer of charter schools was none other than Al Shanker, the progressive American Federation of Teachers union leader who himself argued for autonomy, statewide accountability, competition, and no arbitrary caps on growth in charter schooling. The first charter school law in the country, in Minnesota, was spearheaded by a Democratic state senator [Ember Riechgott Junge]. As the charter movement grew nationally, it attracted the support of such progressive icons as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota; former Democratic National Committee chair and Vermont governor Howard Dean; Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York; Congressman George Miller of California; Martin Luther King III; and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

No reasonable person could say that is a list of people who can be dismissed as closet right-wingers.

I’ll build on that.

My friend Joe Nathan pointed out in 1998 that even teachers’ unions have been supportive, saying the “NEA is spending $1.5 million to help NEA members start charters. And American Federation of Teachers locals in Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia are helping create charters.”

Today, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers authorizes charter schools. Is it because the teachers of Minneapolis are Donald Trump voters?

How about Paul Wellstone? Here is what he said about charter schools in 1998:

I think that it is really healthy to focus on different ways of teaching and learning – the more creativity the better. I say this as someone who was a teacher for 20 years before becoming a senator. I think that schools within schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, and charter schools within the public system all contribute toward more creativity and more exciting education.

Was Wellstone intoxicated by Milton Friedman’s libertarianism?

In a 2004 interview with Mother Jones about the book she wrote with Elizabeth Warren (“The Two Income Trap“), Amelia Tyagi gave a progressive defense of school choice that would be unthinkable in today’s environment:

MJ.com: You mention that the housing crunch and unaffordable mortgages could be dealt with through policies that promote public school choice—basically, offering vouchers to families so that they can send their kids to schools anywhere in a district.

AT: Right. The point here is to give every child access to good public schools regardless of where they live. Today if a parent wants to choose where their kid goes to school, they can either fork over a whole bunch of money in tuition for private school or they can buy a new house near the school of their choice. And it’s driving up property prices in certain key areas. When you stop and think about it, that’s kind of ridiculous.

So we’re suggesting that you need to decouple schools from home location — a zip code should not automatically equal what public school you go to. Ultimately this would give families more choices — they could live anywhere in a city and not worry as much about getting a good education for their kids.

Today there are many Democrats who support charter schools, accountability, and choice. Hardball politics that poison the well, so these leaders fear backing common sense education proposals, harms the larger goals of Democrats and puts them at odds with their own party’s history of civil rights and racial and economic opportunity.

In a moment when every vote counts, those who truly oppose Donald Trump would never be so foolish as to make education reform a fault line amongst honest Democrats.



Citizen Stewart

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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  • August 19, 2018 at 4:54 pm
    Peter Cunningham

    Well said my friend.

  • August 21, 2018 at 1:53 am
    Aurora Wood Moore

    From a political perspective, point well taken. Though I’d be surprised if Dems “walked away” because other Dems are pro “reform.”

    From an education policy perspective, lumping charters, accountability, choice and teacher effectiveness (surely you don’t mean VAM) into one bucket called “reform” is reductionist and isn’t really going to get us to an excellent system for all. Federal programs have improved the extent to which people pay attention to equity. Charters have improved learning for some students in some locales (but worsened it for others).

    I tend to think if Linda Darling-Hammond had been tapped for secretary instead of Arne Duncan, we’d have a much more nuanced approach to improving education. But maybe not: after all, the inputs haven’t changed much. You say reform is the antidote to schools being “overly bureaucratic” – but it’s the laws, regulations, funding streams and programs that ESEA created and that have gotten ever more complex.

    No matter- I also to think reformers of either political persuasion are likely to get what they want when ESSA (predictably*) fails and the politicians can say- we gave it back to states and they couldn’t do it either.

    *States will never reached their long-term goals as measured by tests tied to grade level standards that are then normed for a state… It’s literally impossible. And measuring growth by using tests that test different (grade level) content also doesn’t work. Let’s hope we follow the path of Louisiana’s assessment pilot opportunity– their case for ditching skills-based tests is the most sensible thing I havee read in a while.

    Note: these are my personal observations from 20 years in the field and don’t reflect the position of my employer or the programs I manage.

    • August 21, 2018 at 3:15 am
      Citizen Stewart

      Great comments. Fair points.

      I can see Dems walking away given the high-stakes of elections these days. But, with one wing calling pro-reform Dems “corporate” and attempting to create an artificial fault-line that exiles progressive ed reformers, some will be turned off.

      I’ve seen lots of places where chartered schools are a mixed bag, but not anywhere that they have made the situation worse per se. Even in Detroit where charters are the worst, they still perform marginally better the district schools.

      The thing with Linda Darling-Hammond is she has a lot of great research and expertise, but when she had a school it failed. That says a lot to me.

      I’ll keep an eye on ESSA for you predictions. I hope it succeeds, but I don’t think that was the intention of its authors.

      Thanks for the comment.


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