Three Points On Dems And Education

Earlier this month Third Way hosted an event to discuss education politics and Democrats. Great event and it was good of them to host the discussion. The theme was what’s next but it turned into a more general discussion of education policy and politics. Discussants were former House education committee chair George Miller, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, pollster Jefrey Pollock (who had an unfair advantage because he has his SAG card and the event was held at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater), and me.

A wide-ranging discussion on a range of issues. It used to be that education politics seemed like a race to the center. It’s easy to forget, now, the way George Bush used it in 2000 and the gains (short lived) he made with minority voters in states like Ohio with the issue. These days with only a few Republican leaders (including the president’s brother Jeb Bush) standing in the way of a full-on bums rush to the hard right on education policy the dynamics have changed. Today education politics are less about centrist consensus building and more about resisting reactionary pressure from the right and the left to try to ensure that a focus on under-served students isn’t lost. Three points I made were:

It’s exasperating that Democrats can’t embrace a comprehensive and reformist politics around education. Nine percent of low-income students get a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 24, compared to about four in five more affluent students. It seems more than a little crazy that the party that purports to speak for the little guy isn’t all over that and doesn’t have an aggressive plan to take it on. Solving that problem includes tackling education and non-education issues but it unavoidably demands hard look at our educational system. How we finance, staff, organize, and hold schools accountable has to be part of any serious improvement agenda. Part of the problem with a robust and comprehensive agenda is special interest politics, of course, that’s an old story. But it doesn’t explain all of it and people who only focus on the unions are missing an important part of the story.

We need a middle class politics of education, too. What’s been interesting the past few years is the extent to which people who should be allies on reform have become adversaries. Traditionally a middle class politics of education means leaving suburban schools alone to rise or fall as they might. This has led to widespread mediocrity and pockets of excellence. It also creates an enormous problem for underserved students in those schools. Today, these politics increasingly mean neutering accountability systems to mask uncomfortable bad news about school performance – the Common Core debate is in many ways the latest manifestation of this – and take the pressure for improved performance off. In practice that means that the constituencies Democrats claim to speak for the most – minorities, and working class whites, disconnected, at-risk, or special need students are most likely to be overlooked. Democrats need a much more sophisticated middle class politics that is about supports for better schools, more options and customization for parents, sweeteners for middle income and affluent parents and also about the kind of accountability that doesn’t leave traditionally underserved populations out in the cold. It’s increasingly clear, though, that protecting the most underserved students demands more attention to the politics of the middle class to sustain these efforts.

Watch the courts. There is a lot of attention on the Vergara-case (the California court case about personnel policies in schools) and similar cases in other states. I expect to see more of that because traditionally when people cannot get issues addressed in the political arena they turn to the courts (in this case to force legislators to do something). But the case I’m really watching more immediately is another California case: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. (Just today the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case in its next term). Friedrichs could completely scramble education politics and also the operation of school districts. On the politics, while a lot of people, and a lot of Democrats (George Miller made the point that when he’s considered “anti-union” the term has ceased to mean anything), are exasperated with the teachers unions on education – I think they’re more part of the problem than the solution these days in terms of making schools work better for more kids – they also do a lot of helpful things on various social issues. And if you worry about education funding and other social supports a weakening of the unions is a macro-problem there (impact on a broader array of social issues and causes is another, and significant, issue). Democrats should look at Wisconsin to start to get  a sense of what a post-Friedrich world might look like for good and ill in terms of substantive and political effects. (My bet is that if this comes to pass the NEA will fare better than the AFT because it has much more experience operating successfully in right-to-work environments).

In addition, while the union’s positions on some key educations are hard to defend (read the transcript or watch the video of Vergara for a taste of that) on a day -to-day basis they also do a lot of things that are useful to the operation of schools. Politics aside, if the unions decline there will need to be some smart and innovative ideas about how to pick up that slack through policy and practice. You don’t have to be a fan of today’s teacher work rules, for instance, to also realize that educational administration is a slow-motion disaster and many teachers are treated unfairly and in counterproductive ways. Discrimination remains a live issue and some kinds of discrimination are still unprotected in many states. And given the churn of superintendents in larger districts some mid-level union officials end up being the only people in management/leadership with any institutional memory. In other words, while a lot of people are cheering quietly or not-so-quietly for the Supreme Court to move on Freidrichs it’s naive for reformers, union critics, or others to think it’s all cut and dry if the case is decided against the unions.

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