Shavar Jeffries and Democrats for Education Reform deserve praise. So do reformers such as Jonas Chartock of Leading Educators, Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, and Charles Sahm of the Manhattan Institute. They are among the sadly small number of school reformers who have come out in the past three days to either condemn President-Elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his next Karl Rove, or went further to condemn the incoming administration for its rampant race-baiting, nativism, and rank bigotry.
Rotherham, Chartock, and Sahm have gone on record with their condemnations of Bannon, the former Breitbart Media Network boss whose appointment has caused an uproar because of his long and ignoble record of anti-Semitism and white supremacist thinking. Jeffries and DFER went one step further on Thursday, especially after it was revealed that two Democrats, former D.C. Public Schools boss Michelle Rhee, and Eva Moskowitz, the former New York City Councilmember-turned-Success Academy founder, were being considered to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. met with Trump this week to discuss the possibility of becoming U.S. Secretary of Education. [Rhee is meeting with Trump today about the job. Moskowitz met with Trump, but said she turned it down; she did say that she would work with the administration on expanding school choice.]
Declaring in a statement that Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric “run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be… committed to educating our kids”, Jeffries called on Democrats to refuse any offer to serve in the administration. Declared Jeffries: “Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children.”
These reformers, along with others who have publicly condemned Bannon and Trump, deserve praise for doing the right thing. You can’t say your goal is to build brighter futures for all children and remain silent (or worse, work for) those whose bigotry works against making that come to pass for our most-vulnerable. Standing against Trump in general is an especially important move after it was announced this morning that U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, whose long record of racial bigotry and nativism kept him from being appointed to a federal judgeship three decades ago, has been nominated to become U.S. Attorney General. Given the role federal courts have played in advancing systemic reform for poor and minority children, and how the Attorney General is in charge of consent decrees over matters such as desegregating schools and expanding choice, the presence of Sessions as the nation’s chief legal officer is especially troubling.
Sadly, most reformers have remained silent. This is especially true of so-called conservative reformers who should be standing up now. Neither Gerard Robinson, the American Enterprise Institute wonk overseeing Trump’s education transition committee, nor his co-chair, Hoover Institution’s Williamson Evers, have spoken about Bannon’s appointment. Other prominent conservative reformers, including Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, have either said they would comment later about Bannon or nothing at all. So far, only Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has offered any kind of condemnation.
One conservative reformer in particular, AEI’s Frederick (Rick) Hess, have even gone in the other direction, criticizing fellow reformers for even discussing bigotry. This morning, in a piece in Education Next criticizing the movement for embracing a more social justice orientation, Hess accused centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented brethren of a “divisive pursuit of grievance-driven politics”. From where he sits, simply mentioning America’s legacy of racial bigotry, the Original Sin of the nation, in discussing education policy issues “tears at the fabric of our republic and sows ill-feeling and tribalism”.
Hess’ latest diatribe comes on the heels of a piece co-written earlier this week with former Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn Jr., in which they called on public school teachers to not mention Trump’s bigotry in their lessons. [Kevin Carey of New America Foundation tore apart the argument in his own counter.] One can argue that Hess (along with Finn) have a point about not injecting politics into classrooms. But that argument is countered by the fact that Hess can’t seem to bring himself to publicly condemn Trump’s or Bannon’s bigotry. In fact, not one word in any of Hess’ pieces (or in other op-eds he has written throughout the Election Season) has been dedicated to calling out their racism, anti-Semitism and white nationalism.
Some reformers have already taken aim at Hess’ piece, while others feel that he has jumped the shark rhetorically. Your editor, on the other hand, isn’t shocked at all by Hess’ unwillingness to address bigotry or any other issue involving race. As Dropout Nation has documented since 2011, Hess (along with AEI) has long expressed his opposition to using education policy and practice to stem race– and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Two years ago, Hess took his myopia on race further by arguing that expanding school choice encourages the personal irresponsibility of poor and minority families at the expense of white and other middle-class households. And along with Petrilli, Hess accused other reformers of race-baiting when they opposed passage of what eventually became the Every Student Succeeds Act.
But the myopia on race isn’t just a problem for Hess alone. As Dropout Nation has documented over and over again, conservative reformers seem to think that any discussion about how America’s legacy of racialism is verboten, and that addressing practices that condemn the futures of poor and minority kids is wrong. That the main publication for their side of the movement, Education Next, is notorious for publishing the likes of IQ determinist Jason Richwine (who was ousted from the Heritage Foundation three years ago for arguing that cognitive ability should be used in deciding who can emigrate to the United States) exemplifies the problem many conservative reformers have on this front.
So it isn’t shocking that conservative reformers are staying silent about Trump and Bannon. Their silence, along with those of other reformers, is both unfortunate and morally indefensible.