Do The Winds Of Change On Democratic Education Politics Blow In A Circle?

As you probably heard, on Friday West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, said he’d oppose the nomination of Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management.* OMB is the powerful agency in the Executive Office of the President that sets an administration’s budget and program priorities and oversees regulation across government. Given a 50-50 Senate it’s a blow, possibly fatal, to the already controversial nomination. Maine Republican Susan Collins, another key swing vote, is also opposed. So far the closest nomination vote, for DHS, still garnered seven Republicans, and was supported by Manchin and Collins. The politics are complicated, the West Wing could make it a fight but the Biden Administration cannot afford to antagonize Manchin in general and especially right now when a $1.9t Covid relief bill that will almost certainly be partisan hangs in the balance.

Anyway, as Washington processed the Manchin news, something else caught my eye. Longtime Democratic activist Robert Kuttner floated Democratic economic hand Gene Sperling’s name as a possible replacement for OMB. I’ve seen Gene up close, and in my view he has both good policy sensibility and a fundamental sense of decency about what government should do to help people in their lives. Also, once, when it would have been easy to throw me under the bus for a mistake that wasn’t mine but would have been easy to lay on me, he didn’t do that. That’s not how Washington often works and stays with me about him.

That’s not what I want to post about today though. My question, instead, is this thought experiment. From the Kuttner piece, there is this:

Dean Baker, the founding director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told me: “Gene’s views have genuinely evolved from when he was in the Clinton administration. While I would not have wanted the Gene Sperling of 25 years ago to hold a top position in the Biden administration, I think the Gene Sperling of today would be an outstanding pick as head of OMB.”

I’m not versed on all (and there are a lot so that’s all) the ins and outs of the intra-Democratic economic debate over the decades. The specifics of Baker’s point are not my point here, the debate has evolved and I’m sure various views have.

What I wonder about is what would that observation look like in the education world? How might someone’s views evolve over the decades to make them more acceptable to the establishment now? Presumably it might mean that someone had become more hostile to charter schools (Clinton had a goal of creating 3000 during his time in office). Or perhaps it would mean more hostility to school choice in general. And probably being more hostile to accountability requirements around holding schools accountable for the learning of all students, not just averages. As a policy or ideas matter it would not turn on spending – or the need for more equitable school finance schemes in most states. You don’t actually find a lot of disagreement about those issues from center to center-left to left. The arguments turn on structural issues like choice and accountability, and what we should reasonably expect from schools all else equal.**

But here’s what’s striking. There is an abundance of evidence across several decades that accountability systems benefit Black, Hispanic, and low-income students as well as evidence that their absence thwarts progress. And a lot of evidence as well that well-designed choice plans can provide families with opportunity – urban charter schools in particular stand out and when scrutinized much of the rhetoric about charters falls apart.*** That’s no small part of why choice enjoys more support from Blacks and Hispanics than from white progressives. In other words, on key education issues politics and the evidence diverge, starkly. That seems different than the debate about issues like minimum wage and other issues where though hardly aligned, the politics on the Democratic side at least reflect to some extent the trend in the evidence?

So for a Democratic education wonk the evolution that would be most favorable politically is away from choice and accountability. That would get an approving nod from the powers that be and is a pretty good fit with the political zeitgeist now. Yet some of what would be most beneficial from a policy perspective for racial and ethnic minorities and low-income students is incorporating choice and accountability meaningfully into policy.

Have fun with that! It’s an education political riddle Democrats have not yet solved. And seems like a big problem for a party that wants to be about opportunity for all – especially for those most historically denied it.

*Yes, the argument that Tanden’s acerbic tweet history might hinder her ability to work with Republicans is at once probably true to some extent and also absolutely absurd given the last few years, and last few months.

**This is a sort of dysfunctional debate that goes back too long and persists walking dead-like.The lazy framing is that the debate inside the Democratic party is accountability versus money for various social services and for schools. In fact, it’s money for those things versus money for those things + accountability for schools. I’m sure exceptions exist, but most people on the center and center-left don’t need much convincing on the need for a whole host of better social policy supports for Americans from related issues, for instance health care, to mainline education issues like early education.

***At this point the case against at least some expansion of choice is mostly theoretical in terms of different views on the role of schools in society. The empirical case just isn’t there. That argument, the version that’s not just about special interest politics and political power, is probably best laid out here by Frederick deBoer.