Your editor isn’t going to spend a lot of time lamenting Tuesday’s general election results. Not that a lament would matter anyway. Donald Trump will still be the next President of the United States. A significant percentage of the American people, many of whom calling themselves Christians, chose a bigot, a demagogue, and a violator of nearly every one of the Ten Commandments, to lead the nation for the next four years. The initiative in Massachusetts to expand the number of public charter schools operating there will still be defeated, and the effort in Georgia to allow the state to take over the Peach State’s failure mills remains voted down.
More importantly, as seen in the latter two ballot initiative as well as with other elections at the state and local levels, we are still faced with the reality that for many Americans, building brighter futures for our children, especially those black and brown, is not and will never be top priority. Also clear: That those people generally are willing to embrace bigotry and damage to the futures of children and the families that love them because those people, some of whom are their neighbors and colleagues, are of no concern to them. But we knew that already.
There’s also the fact that simply crying about the election results doesn’t address some of the reasons why the results happened as they did.
When looking at the presidential election, supporters of Hillary Clinton must admit that her defeat at the hands of Trump resulted in part from being ineffective campaigner who could not reach either hardcore progressives who had flocked to Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential nomination campaign, or inspire the six million Americans who had previously returned incumbent Barack Obama to the White House four years ago. Certainly the real estate developer-turned-reality television host’s long record of bigotry, misogyny and general incivility towards everyone should have caused them to come out and vote. But failing to show up and be counted in key states such as Pennsylvania to get out the vote, along with the fact that she never learned from her failure to beat Obama in his run for the presidency in 2008, doomed her.
Her platform, which included the embrace of education traditionalism (symbolized by her close working relationship with the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers) as well as the rejection of the systemic reforms embraced and advanced fitfully by Obama, also made her unattractive to wide swaths of those who would have voted for her.
But let’s also be clear: Clinton was also failed by the Democratic National Committee,which spent no time over the past four years rebuilding its weak state and local party machines. This failure also doomed Clinton because the Republican National Committee was able to help Trump win by focusing all of its efforts on successfully keeping its majorities in Congress and getting out just enough voters to win. The weakness of the state- and local-level Democrat organizations, a problem that has been around for
As for both traditionalists and reformers? There were no victories for either. If anything, the fight over transforming American public education remains in stalemate. And for reformers, in particular, it won’t get easier.
Both NEA and AFT spent the past four years working to win Clinton and the Democratic National Committee leadership over to the traditionalist side. This includes the early endorsements of Clinton’s campaign by both unions, as well as $2.2 million in donations made by AFT to the two foundations controlled by Hillary and her husband, the former president, over the past four years. But all of the money, manpower, and machinations both unions expounded on her behalf came to naught. With Trump in control of the White House and Republicans keeping control of both houses, the two unions have lost even more influence on the federal level. The consequences will likely be dire. Trump will likely appoint a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, reviving the effort to end the ability of NEA and AFT (as well as other public-sector unions) to forcibly collect dues from teachers regardless of desire for membership. More importantly, congressional Republicans could actually make it a reality without even going through the courts just by passing legislation.
None of this will be pleasing to the hardcore progressive traditionalists within NEA and AFT who opposed the decisions to back Clinton instead of Sanders, and hated how the presidents of both unions, Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten strong-armed the rank-and-file into approving those endorsements. Weingarten, whose ties to the Clinton campaign have been well-documented by Dropout Nation and in e-mails obtained by the notorious WikiLeaks, will probably face particular scorn, especially given that her previous strategies for maintaining the union’s declining influence have blown up in her face. But NEA will also take some hits from members. After all, its executive director, John Stocks, is a key player in the secretive Democracy Alliance, which has been the key players within Democratic Party politics. The failure of Democracy Alliance’s network and the wider Democratic machine to make any gains at the ballot box will remind those progressive traditionalists that NEA has sustained the party’s established order, which rejected Sanders, their favored candidate.
With the likelihood that the Clinton acolytes currently in control of the Democratic National Committee will lose control in the coming months, and the battle to come between centrists and progressives over the future of the party, NEA and AFT are poorly positioned to gain a stronger role within in.
But reformers are in almost no position to take meaningful advantage. Despite clear evidence that Clinton would not continue the Obama Administration’s systemic reform efforts, centrist Democrat reformers still worked tirelessly on behalf of Clinton’s campaign. Her defeat all but shuts them out of federal policymaking circles for at least the next four years.
That they continuously backed Obama’s reckless, shoddy, bumbling, and counterproductive No Child waiver gambit, which essentially eviscerated the law and paved the way for congressional Republicans and traditionalists to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, means that the best of the president’s political legacy on education policy (including Race to the Top) will probably end up in history’s ashbin. In the face of Clinton’s defeat, the failure of centrist Democrat reformers to pay attention to both civil rights-oriented reformers (who warned against eviscerating No Child) and conservative reformers (who warned against Obama Administration’s Rube Goldbergian approach to policy) looms larger than ever.
Meanwhile Trump’s ascent into the White House bodes ill for one of the Obama Administration’s most-admirable efforts: Holding districts accountable for overusing out-of-school suspensions and other harsh school discipline that put poor and minority children onto the school-to-prison pipeline, an important issue both on the education and criminal justice reform fronts. Given Trump’s general opposition to criminal justice reform, the antipathy among Republicans and many conservative reformers to the Black Lives Matter movement (which has championed Obama’s efforts), and the skepticism among so-called conservative reformers (most-notably Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and his amen corner at Education Next) on school discipline reform, expect nothing more after January.
The best centrist and civil rights-oriented reformers can hope for on the federal front is that current Acting Secretary of Education John King quickly implements the administrative rules developed for implementing ESSA. Once put into place, it will be hard for both Trump and congressional Republicans to get rid of them. Whether King or the Obama Administration will move quickly is another question entirely.
As for conservative reformers? They aren’t better-positioned on the federal policy front, either. Many of them opposed Trump’s campaign and backed other candidates, most-notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Most of them didn’t even have ties to Trump’s campaign. Even before the presidential campaign, they had little real sway over federal education policymaking. This was clear early last year when they were caught off-guard by the successful effort of Common Core opponents and movement conservatives to stop the passage of now-outgoing House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s first draft of what became ESSA, and just plain crystal after the passage of the final (and even worse) version.
Certainly the presence of American Enterprise Institute fellow Gerard Robinson, a former education official in Florida and Virginia (and onetime president of Black Alliance for Educational Options), on Trump’s education transition team gives conservative reformers some hope that they can have some sway in the incoming administration. At least that’s what they hope. Others are probably hoping that they can work through Senate education czar Lamar Alexander and his top assistant, David Cleary. Some may even think either Congresswoman Virginia Foxx or Kline’s majordomo, Todd Rokita, will be helpful. But given Trump’s general disdain for tackling education policy, the disagreements between him and congressional Republicans, the divisions on education policy (and other issues) that remain among the varying factions of the Republican Party, the general fiscal realities facing the nation, and the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to tackle education in the coming years, those hopes are vain.
Given the likely lack of positive movement on the federal front, reformers must now focus on the state and local levels. But they still haven’t figured out how to mobilize communities and families to help advance systemic reform. This became clear with both the defeat of Massachusetts’ Question 2, which would have allowed for more charter schools to be opened in the Bay State, and the ballot initiative in Georgia to allow for the creation of a statewide school district that would take over failure mills. Particularly in Massachusetts, reformers were never able to beat back opposition from NEA’s and AFT’s state affiliates, which spent $13.4 million on opposing the initiative as well as financed allies such as Save Our Public Schools (which collected $100,000 from AFT’s Bay State affiliate in 2015-2016). More importantly, they did not offer a platform for backing charters that appealed to suburban families, especially those from black and Latino backgrounds who are as desiring of choice as those in Boston and other urban communities.
The good news is that reform-mind legislators and governors did win office this time around. In Nebraska, Teach For America alum Tony Vargas won a seat in that state’s lower house. In California, charter school advocates successfully backed Tim Grayson in his race for an assembly seat against Mae Torlakson, the wife of the Golden State’s traditionalist-oriented superintendent, and got Scott Weiner elected to a state senate seat. In Oakland, reform-minded superintendent Antwan Brown’s coalition on the school board (including Jumoke Hinton-Hodge) retained their seats, while efforts in New Orleans by AFT to win a school board seat also went down to defeat. There’s also political scion Chris Sununu, who won the New Hampshire’s gubernatorial race.
But reformers can’t count on politicians to keep their words beyond the election cycle. Center for Education Reform boss Jeanne Allen should have learned this the hard way two years ago when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan backed passage of a charter school law that restricted expansion of that form of choice. Same for reformers in New York, who have been dismayed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s willingness to render stillborn implementation of Common Core reading and math standards as well as weaken the state’s teacher evaluation system.
Beyond those elections, the school reform movement must work on strategies and tactics that will mobilize families at the grassroots as well as politicians and bureaucrats within the corridors of power. More-importantly, the movement must address its own divides, especially between centrist Democrat, civil rights-oriented, and conservative reformers who disagree over such basic fundamentals as whether the achievement gaps that trap half of our children into poverty and prison should be addressed in policy and practice. And reformers must remember why we are doing this work in the first place.
Because our children deserve more than what America gave them this week.