Stop B****ing and Start a Revolution

A number of my education policy friends have expressed frustration that Democratic presidential contenders aren’t willing to take a more aggressive reform policy stance or make education policy more central to their campaigns. The blame tends to fall on teachers unions or the unwillingness of candidates to take on such a powerful interest group. But it’s not clear to me that’s actually right.

For starters, I’m not sure it’s fair to say Democratic presidential candidates have been unwilling to embrace views on education that teachers unions don’t like. Sen. Clinton is standing by her support for charter schools, and Sen. Obama called for teacher performance pay in his speech to the NEA. Now one might say this isn’t going nearly far enough. But if we look at why Democratic presidential candidates aren’t being more aggressive on education, other factors besides teachers unions are very important.

Two of the biggest obstacles are Iowa and New Hampshire. It would be hard to pick two states less likely to be supportive of the kind of education reforms that Andy, Joe, Whitney and I would like to see. Both are very strong local control states, with incredibly weak charter school laws, no major urban areas, and low rates of poor and minority students. Iowa’s one of the highest performing states in the country on NAEP, and Iowans don’t take kindly to reforms that would mess with their system, and the caucus system gives undue weight to PTA-types, school board members, and other local leaders who tend to support the education status quo. New Hampshire has one of the nation’s most retrograde school finance systems and strong opposition to doing anything about that. In short, these are lousy states to be trying to sell on reforms that strengthen centralized standards and accountability, expand public school choice, or focus on equity and improving education for poor and minority kids. The huge amount of time candidates spend in these states means they get an earful from locals about the evils of NCLB, and those kind of things do have an influence on campaigns’ and operatives’ thinking. There are lots of problems with increasingly compact and early primary schedule, but bringing in more diverse and nationally representative states earlier in the process to dilute the influence of these two states should be salutary to education reform agendas. But they still play a huge role and as long as they do, education reform agendas in the primaries face an uphill struggle.

Beyond that, significant elements of the Democratic base are hostile to components of the education reform agenda for ideological reasons that it would be a mistake to attribute entirely to the influence of teachers unions. People who think that unchecked market forces and economic competition are a major problem and source of injustice in modern society are going to be skeptical of market-based education reform strategies, such as greater school choice or teacher performance pay, regardless of what teachers unions think. The fact that better schools has become only response conservatives are willing to offer to pressing problems of economic inequality has turned some progressives off education reform. And left-leaning education reformers shouldn’t underestimate the role of increased partisanship and anger with the Bush administration in souring their fellow liberals on NCLB and other school reforms.

Education reformers who want Democratic politicians to adopt their preferred policies can’t just blame unions and candidates for not being tough enough. We need to change the objective facts on the ground that make it difficult for Democratic candidates to support education reform. Rhetoric about education and social justices isn’t enough—particularly since that’s the very thing some of our audience find suspect. Liberal education reformers need to win hearts and minds by engaging with reform-wary lefties and taking their concerns seriously—not just calling them union hacks or accusing them of not caring about kids. We need to engage in honest self-reflection and be willing to make changes in response to valid critiques from the left. We need to avoid allying with “friends” who undermine our credibility as proponents of social justice. We need to make common cause with other progressive advocates for kids—those working on health care, childcare, and juvenile justice, for instance—rather than undermining them. We also need expand the pro-reform Democratic base by organizing the low-income and minority parents whose kids we want to support, who are natural Democratic constituents. This is a much longer-term strategy than 2008 or even the presidential election after that. And it’s true that kids can’t wait for us to build a new school reform politics. But if we’re not willing and able to do this work, we shouldn’t criticize Democratic political candidates for not putting themselves on the line without it.

–Guestblogger Sara Mead

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