One of the underlying themes running both within the battle over the reform of American public education and in the overall general election landscape for the past two years is the success of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers in co-opting the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. From the efforts of AFT President Randi Weingarten and her mandarins to adopt the class warfare language of the Occupy Wall Street crowd (even as they collect princely sums themselves), to the dollars generously ladled out by the NEA to groups such as ProgressNow, edu-traditionalists are looking to create a second front within Democratic Party circles who can help them box in reform-minded politicians who aren’t sufficiently ‘Democrat’ enough (or, in other words, won’t do the bidding of teachers’ unions). This in turn, is making life complicated for centrist and liberal Democrat reformers, who have long chastised conservative and Republican counterparts such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for attempting to weaken teachers’ union influence through such measures as abolishing collective bargaining privileges — even as their own reform efforts would do the same thing (and, by implication, clamp down on the power of other public sector unions who are the prime backers of progressive activists).
So it wasn’t surprising that progressives and AFT activists would go after one of the leading players in progressive Democrat politics, grassroots mobilizing outfit Change.org, after it allowed one of the leading centrist Democrat reform outfits, Stand For Children, to put a petition decrying the move by the AFT’s Chicago local to authorize a work stoppage (a subject of one of last week’s Dropout Nation‘s commentaries). After all, progressives have an amazing tendency to go all Jacobin against those who they consider a little too Girondins (or for those of us unfamiliar with the French Revolution, insufficiently pure) in their beliefs or associations. Nor was it shocking that Change responded to the criticism by engaging in what can best be called financial self-preservation (or as those of us with the courage of our convictions would call it, pure cowardice) by ceasing its work with Stand as well as with Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, which has also used the company’s services. Given that Change must compete with outfits such as the notorious MoveOn.org (and, as a corporate outfit, also faces potential accusations of being one of those profiteers that progressives, despite their affiliations with well-financed interests, like to use in their class warfare target practice), it had to toe the party line.
But this episode brings up some important questions, both for centrist Democrats and for the progressives who oppose them, when it comes to systemic reform.
Over the past couple of years, some centrist Democrats, including Democrats For Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson and those within that crowd, have eschewed bipartisanship based on the rather faulty conceit that it is better to build support within party ranks than work with like-minded Republican counterparts. But as they have found out lately, especially during recent battles in Connecticut, New York State, and now, Chicago, the biggest obstacles to reform lie not with teaming up with colleagues across the political aisle, but in dealing with fellow Democrats and especially progressive activists within the tent. Like their NEA and AFT allies, progressives think no better of centrist Democrat reform aims than they do of those touted by the Republicans and conservatives they also disdain. But it’s not just about teachers’ unions. Given the ideological opposition of progressives to anything that smacks of involving the private sector, supposedly “neoliberal” concepts touted by centrist Democrats such as charter schools (which are public schools operated by companies and nonprofits) will never find favor with the Move.org crowd.
So centrist Democrats find themselves in the same quandary that befuddled Blue Dog Democrats during the 1980s and 1990s: How can you remain sufficiently Democrat when more-purist elements of the party are engaged in the political version of the Reign of Terror? They aren’t alone in asking such a question. Conservative and Republican reformers have found themselves engaged in a similar bind, this time when it comes to movement conservatives rebelling against the excesses of former president George W. Bush’s tenure as the Democrat’s favorite Republican. The solution is going to lie with embracing the kind of bipartisan, single-issue focus pioneered a a century ago by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League in their push for Prohibition, which is now being embraced by both StudentsFirst and Stand in their efforts.
Meanwhile progressives, who love to proclaim how they want to end economic inequality, find themselves in some hypocritical contradictions when it comes to opposing centrist Democrats and the systemic reforms they support. In opposing reformers such as Stand and StudentsFirst, progressives also find themselves going up against grassroots reformers and Parent Power activists such as Parent Revolution and the Connecticut Parents Union, which have also used Change.org to champion Parent Trigger laws that allow for poor and minority families to transform failure mills in their communities, as well as to rally support to end Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling that have led to mothers such as Tanya McDowell and Kelly Williams-Bolar facing arrests and convictions for doing all they can to give their kids the high-quality education they deserve. By standing against these groups — and backing anti-school choice policies that the NEA and AFT support – progressives find themselves perpetuating the very inequalities that they proclaim they oppose.
As some progressives have pointed out, supporting the NEA and AFT also isn’t exactly in their own best interest, especially when it comes to their other political and social priorities. The $1.1 trillion in unfunded defined-benefit teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded healthcare retired teacher healthcare liabilities — a legacy of decades of dealmaking between teachers’ unions, state governments, and districts — is one of the very reasons why there is little money for funding pre-kindergarten programs and expanding government-funded healthcare for the poor. In fact, one of the reasons why systemic reform is being embraced by both centrist Democrat reformers and cost-cutting governors is because traditional teacher compensation — already proven to be ineffective in both improving student achievement and in rewarding good and great teachers for their stellar work — is no longer sustainable in an age in which Medicaid costs are rising at a 10 percent annual clip (and will increase by another 32 percent in one year if the Affordable Care Act passes U.S. Supreme Court muster). By aiding and abetting NEA and AFT affiliates, progressives are supporting a public sector union version of corporate welfare — or protecting the rich, as they would say — at the expense of poor and minority children (who are denied high-quality educational opportunities while also being saddled with burdens they and their middle-class counterparts can’t afford to bear) and their families.
At some point, progressives are going to have to decide where they really stand. If they truly stand for expanding economic opportunity and equal opportunity for all, then they can no longer oppose systemic reform or embrace the failed thinking perpetuated by the NEA and AFT that has led to the nation’s education crisis (and contributed to the very inequality progressives say they oppose). Otherwise they are just little more than modern-day political Robespierres who will find themselves guillotine by their own thoughtless alliances with those who perpetuate educational neglect and economic decay.