Politically Advancing Reform: StudentsFirst Gets It Right in California and Iowa
My friend Andy Rotherham engages in a bit of overstatement when he declares in his latest Time column that results from Tuesday’s primary elections in California were more important for school reform than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s victory over those attempting to recall him. Given that Rotherham and other centrist Democrats are being forced by Walker’s success in abolishing collective bargaining privileges for NEA and AFT affiliates to admit to their own designs for weakening teachers’ union influence, and, almost as importantly, have to accept the defeat of a fellow Democrat they would rather support over a Republican with whom they tacitly share common cause on the school reform front, the overstatement is quite understandable.
But the reality is that California’s results don’t have as much meaning as Rotherham and others want to think because none of the victories involved taking down the key reasons why the Golden State has been backsliding on reform since the last days of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure: The NEA’s and AFT’s favorite governor, Jerry Brown (who has all but ignored the need to lead systemic reform in the state), or state Supt. Tom Torlakson, whose aiding and abetting of education traditionalist thinking has made him the favorite of the Diane Ravitch-Randi Weingarten crowd. Nor do the victories immediately target the state Democratic Party leadership, which, as seen in in the fight between the L.A. branch of the party and Democrats for Education Reform over the use of “Democrat”, has become even more of an amen corner for the NEA than it was just three years ago. Until centrist Democrat reformers mount a strong challenge both within the party committee ranks and at the ballot box (by targeting Brown and Torlakson two years from now), the primary successes won’t mean very much at all.
The re-election of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (whose embrace of reform extends beyond founding charter schools and agitating from city hall to his own marriage) offers a potent example to other Golden State mayors who realize that education reform.is key to the economic renewal of their cities. The fact that two reform-minded state legislative candidates — including political scion Ian Calderon — have gained solid footing in upcoming run-offs is also heartening. Certainly both Calderon and Brian Johnson (who is running for current state assembly speaker John Perez’s seat) must work even harder to win against the front-runners; Johnson will face a particularly tough fight against former state legislative aide Adrin Nazarian, a protege of former state legislator-turned city councilman Paul Krekorian who can count on backing from Los Angeles’ police officers’ union. But given that California’s new election system offers possibilities for candidates to mount a strong challenge and win campaigns, Johnson and Calderon are at least in position for reformers to work the grassroots on their behalf for victory. And considering that reformers have put their money behind their advocacy — with outfits such as EdVoice poured as much as $1.4 million into Johnson’s campaign, while Calderon garnered cash from the likes of former Los Angeles Unified School District board member Caprice Young (who put $100 down on his campaign), and the state charter schools association’s political action committee (which tossed $2,000 into his coffers) — this could bold well so long as the candidates also do everything right in order to win.
The biggest winner of all among school reform outfits, at least this go-round, is StudentsFirst, the outfit founded by Michelle Rhee which has garnered as much look askance from fellow reformers (many of whom are both envious of the organization’s fund-raising ability, and fearful that its outsized presence may actually do some harm to the movement) as from education traditionalists who dislike Rhee intensely. While the outfit has been scored some victories on the legislative front (including teaming up with the Connecticut Parents Union to support Gov. Dan Malloy’s reform effort), it hasn’t done as well when it comes to electing and defending reform-minded candidates. It’s most-notable play last year, backing now-former Michigan state representative Paul Scott from a NEA-supported recall campaign, ended in a loss. It also garnered (public) sneers from education traditionalists and their progressive allies within Democratic Party circles, as well as (privately) from centrist and liberal Democrat reformers for its willingness to back Republican candidates as well as those on the Democrat side of the aisle.
Yet in supporting both Calderon and Johnson with both dollars and bodies on the ground, StudentsFirst has proven that going hard and fast on political campaigning for reform-minded candidates has plenty of value. In backing Iowa state senator Shawn Hamerlinck in his bruising primary re-election bid, the outfit has also proven its value as a political campaign go-to. In the process, StudentsFirst is also proving true the lessons taught earlier by legendary prohibitionist Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League in the last century about the importance of bipartisanship in advancing reform. What matters more in these situations is not the party affiliation of the candidate being backed, but whether the politician who will support your positions while in office, and support the legislation and referendums that will best-advance your positions.
It will be interesting to see if other school reform activists working the political arena begin applying StudentsFirst’s lessons to their own work. At the very least, doing so would make it easier for the movement to advance reform even in places where those in control of statehouses aren’t their ideological allies on other fronts. And ultimately, it will help in advancing the transformation of American public education our children deserve.