Certainly there is plenty of reason to celebrate the results of last Tuesday’s general elections. But the time for that is over. There’s an election coming next year, one that will have impact on the efforts of school reformers to build better lives for all children.
But will the movement be ready?
If you live in Maryland, as your editor does, the gubernatorial race could shape up to be a battle between two reform-minded candidates. One one hand, there’s incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan who, despite some high-profile setbacks courtesy of the Democrat-controlled legislature and White reformers unwilling to work with Black counterparts, has proven to be slightly better than your editor thought he would be three years ago. On the other side, there’s the equally reform-minded Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who took partial control of the traditional district and has made overhauling it a key priority. If reformers come out to support Baker (and rally others to do the same), it can work out for Maryland’s children.
But only if the movement is ready.
If you are in California, there’s the chance to end outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown’s deliberate rollback of systemic reform by backing former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to replace him. Unlike rival Gavin Newsom (who just gained the backing of the National Education Association’s California Teachers Association) Villaraigosa has proven effective in advancing systemic reform (and battling traditionalists) on behalf of children during his years as Los Angeles Mayor despite having no control over the traditional district there. Reformers also have a chance to put Marshall Tuck into the state superintendent’s office, effectively ending the state education department’s fealty to CTA and the AFT’s state affiliate there.
It can be done only if the movement is ready.
There are opportunities to continue systemic reform. There’s Georgia, where Nathan Deal’s successful expansion of school choice can be continued with the right candidate. There is also Colorado, where reformers can work with others to put Teach For America alum-turned-state senator Mike Johnston into the governor’s office. Meanwhile Florida has an opportunity to build on the reforms began under Jeb Bush that have continued in fits and starts under Rick Scott. This is all before you look at the other gubernatorial, chief state school officer, and state board races that will be on the ballot next year.
All of this can happen. But only if the movement is ready.
These days, the school reform movement can use all the political victories it can muster. On the national level, centrist Democrat, progressive, and civil rights-oriented reformers bet badly on Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign,while the hopes conservative reformers had for Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education have proven to be as illusory as your editor said they would be. That the Trump Administration is effectively engaged in a war on the futures of poor and minority children (including the 760,000 covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the native-born children of undocumented emigres) essentially proves beyond a doubt that the federal government is abandoning three decades of advancing reform.
Meanwhile the failures to win voter support expansion of charter schools and overhaul of traditional districts in Massachusetts and Georgia have only been slightly blunted with legislative victories for expanding choice in Colorado, Texas and Illinois. But as seen on Tuesday in Douglas County, Colo., and Denver, the success reformers make in working policymakers isn’t translating into political victories that can sustain those solutions for the long run. Even on the policy front, the evisceration of accountability in Maryland and California (where Gov. Brown signed legislation eliminating the state’s graduation exam), along with the weak plans submitted by most states for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, serve as reminders that past successes don’t last forever without eternal vigilance.
As you would expect, there are reformers who hope that the U.S. Supreme Court’s likely ruling against compulsory dues collections in Janus v. AFSCME will weaken NEA, AFT and their traditionalist allies and rally more progressive Democrats to their side. This is short-sighted thinking. Even if both unions lose as much as 30 percent of revenue, they still have the bodies and relationships on the ground necessary to oppose reformers at the ballot box. Just as importantly, because some of the nation’s foremost reformers (especially Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights and Center for American Progress) are dependent on funding from other public sector unions and even collect some cash from NEA and AFT, those groups will be weakened financially, hampering the school reform movement’s efforts to help all children succeed.
School reformers can’t simply count on legislative victories or on the weakening of traditionalist opponents. They must do more than simply stand still. As your editor has kept arguing for the better part of this decade, reformers must become politically savvier in order to sustain the systemic overhaul of American public education.
This begins by learning one of the most-important lessons of Tuesday’s success by Democrats in wining the Virginia gubernatorial campaign and other victories at the legislative and municipal levels throughout the nation: Rally support from poor and minority communities, including immigrant households. As Center for American Progress noted last week in its post-mortem on the 2016 election, just increasing turnout among those communities would have made the difference between a Clinton victory and her ultimate defeat.
Considering that poor and minority households are the ones most-affected by the failures of American public education, reformers can make strong inroads by embracing the approaches used successfully by progressive groups this year (as well as by Green Dot Public Schools Founder Steve Barr and Parent Revolution over the past decade). This includes addressing the issues outside of education policy and practice that are of immediate concern to those communities, as well as taking a page from NEA and AFT locals by working with the churches and community organizations connected to the people who live in them. It also means recruiting those from Black, Latino, and other minority communities to run in school board races and other political campaigns, a point made by Democrats in their success this week.
The second step can also be gleaned from Tuesday’s election results: Build strong support for reform among suburban families, especially those from poor and minority households who make up an increasingly large share of the populations there as well as those that are White and college-educated. The lack of support from suburbia is one reason why the effort to expand charters in Massachusetts went down to defeat last year.
Particularly on expanding school choice, reformers can focus on how opening charter schools can help families gain new educational settings that suburban districts deliberately limit for their use in satisfying key constituencies. This includes explaining how families can launch language immersion charters that are now popular with upper middle class households (and are also needed for children from immigrant homes). It also includes helping Black and Latino families challenge Zip Code Education policies that lead to their children not receiving the high-quality teaching and curricula they need and deserve.
The third step lies in embracing tactics used by politicians and challengers in their campaigns. Holding voter registration drives, for example, will help bring new voters to the polls and even help reformers prove their value to the politicians they need to help pass legislation. Running political ads that bring attention to education issues in a simple-yet-comprehensive way is also important to do.
While reform groups have launched 501(c)4 political advocacy operations alongside traditional nonprofits, they must do more. This means starting independent expenditure groups similar to those run by NEA and AFT (as well as other political players) who can finance ads on behalf of (and against) candidates on the ballot.
Finally, and most-importantly, reformers must work together with activists outside of education, including those in the Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform movements (whose leading lights include alumni of Teach For America) as well as those working against the Trump Administration’s war on undocumented emigres and their families. After all, you can only galvanize people to your side when you show that you care about the lives and futures of their communities as well as their children. More importantly, reformers can’t call themselves champions for children if they are not defending them at all times, addressing the issues outside of schools that affect how they learn within them, and dealing with the reality that American public education at the nexus of the ills that plague the nation today.
As Patrick Riccards noted last week, conservative and many centrist Democrat reformers erred when they criticized Teach For America (as well as other outfits) when it became more-explicit in its efforts to build brighter futures for poor and minority children inside and outside of schoolhouse doors. These reformers should correct the error of their ways. This doesn’t mean that reformers have to join protest rallies. But they can sign letters of support for legislation such as a path for DACA recipients gaining citizenship, as well as support political campaigns of those who want to reform law enforcement agencies that end up patrolling traditional district schools. Such support for those efforts, in turn, help reformers gain advocates on their behalf for transforming American public education.
Reformers can even take stands in elections that are far outside of these issues. The movement’s leading lights, for example, can call out former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice-turned-Republican Senatorial Nominee Roy Moore over allegations revealed this week that he conditioned and engaged in sexual misconduct with underage women. As champions for children, we cannot stand by anyone taking public office who has engaged in the kind of evil for which we would condemn rogue teachers and police officers. It doesn’t take much — and this can even be tied to the issues of protecting our children and youth inside and out of schools.
The coming year is an opportunity for the school reform movement to gain the political support needed to help all children succeed. The steps needed to be taken can be done. It can happen.
But are reformers ready? For the sake of our children, they need to be.
Featured photo: Prince George’s County, Md., Executive Rushern Baker, who is looking to challenge incumbent Larry Hogan, is one of many reform-minded politicians who may end up on the ballot next year.