Anyone who has been paying attention to the failures of California on the school reform front shouldn’t be surprised by Sunday’s move by the Golden State’s Democratic Party activists to approve a measure condemning centrist and liberal Democrat reformers in the state (and across the nation) for daring to oppose the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates that have long sustained the party. After all, NEA and AFT affiliates in California have sewed up their sway over Democratic Party leaders who control the state legislature, as well as have the state’s once-and-future governor, Jerry Brown, along with Supt. Tom Torlakson, under their thumbs. Considering how state Democratic leaders sparred with Democrats for Education Reform last year over the latter’s use of Democrat in its name (along with the NEA’s California affiliate complaining about the Obama re-election campaign’s hiring of former Parent Revolution communications lead Linda Serrato), the rancor between Democrat activists with ties to teachers’ unions, and centrist Democrat reformers is no longer all that shocking.
Conservative reformers who support Common Core reading and math standards, on the other hand, are probably more shocked by the move earlier this week by the Republican National Committee to pass a resolution opposing the implementation of the curricula reform effort in 45 states and the District of Columbia. After all, conservative reformers supporting Common Core have succeeded in beating back efforts by opponents — most-notably fellow reformers Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute and Hoover Institution’s Williamson Evers — to gain support from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the convening organization for GOP legislators in the nation’s 50 statehouses, so they didn’t likely expect the RNC to pass this proposed resolution. But they shouldn’t be. Movement conservatives such as Americans For Prosperity, cheered on by Stergios, Evers, and University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene (and playing on former Indiana superintendent– and now Florida Commissioner — Tony Bennett’s defeat last year) have stepped up their campaign in states such as Indiana, Missouri, and Alabama to roll back the standards.
Both events serve as important reminders to reformers on both sides of the party lines of this reality: That they cannot count on unquestioned support from politically ideological fellow-travelers whose concerns often lie more either with issues other than addressing the nation’s education crisis or with preserving political power they have gained in districts and at the state level with the help of traditionalist forces. Building strong bipartisan coalitions that engage families and communities on the ground, along with forcefully challenging the thinking of ideological allies within party ranks, is critical to sustaining systemic reform.
For centrist Democrat reformers at the national level, this is the best of times. They largely won the day when it comes to education positions within the Democratic National Committee, as well as in directing federal education policy, with the Obama Administration largely ignoring the entreaties of the NEA and AFT (and those of the progressive activists within the part who have been co-opted by the two unions over the past few years). This strong position at the national level, which began in the early 1990s when Bill Clinton embraced charter schools and supported the first efforts to require states to show results for the federal subsidies they received, became more-prominent five years ago after reformers backed eventual Democratic presidential nominee Obama while NEA and AFT leaders backed Hillary Clinton instead. Democrat politicians who aspire to succeed Obama as the nominee (and next president) will likely embrace systemic reform wholeheartedly. Two of the likely nominees, in 2016, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have both spearheaded reform efforts during their tenures in top state office.
As for conservative reformers? They still dominate education policy within the Republican National Committee having long ago won support for much of their positions. This is especially true when it comes expanding school choice, with strong today among presidential aspirants such as Sen. Marco Rubio as well as from congressional leaders such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, all of whom have realized that it has the potential to play key roles in building a strong platform to retake the presidency three years from now. At the same time, conservative reformers — especially those in the vanguard of the standards and accountability movement — are in a stalemate of sorts. Movement conservatives, still steamed over the what they consider to be the excesses of George W. Bush’s presidency, wrongly view the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability provisions as federal overreach, even though the law merely reaffirmed the role of states as the primary decision-makers in education policy, blessed accountability efforts that had already been put into place by governors in states such as Texas and Florida (and supported in the 1980s by the Reagan Administration with the release of A Nation at Risk), and gave reform-minded state leaders leverage in advancing reforms opposed by traditionalists.
The implement of Common Core has become a particular bone of contention between conservative reformers supportive of standards and movement conservatives opposed to them, especially in the nation’s statehouses. As with No Child, movement conservatives think that it is essentially federal overreach, especially because of the role of the Obama Administration in implicitly endorsing the standards as well as in supporting the work of states to implement them. [That the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has supported conservative and centrist Democrat reformers alike, is involved in advancing the standards, has also led some foes — call them Gatesers — to claim that supporters engaged in a conspiracy to craft the standards in secret.]
As a result, conservative reformers have sparred both at the national level and in states such as Indiana with usually-sensible counterparts on the movement conservative side as well as beating back the conspiracy-theorizing and misinformation campaigns by the likes of syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin (whose misinformed pieces were criticized by Dropout Nation last month). [Malkin feels that she’s “under fire” from supposed big-government conservatives, your editor somehow included; feel free to heartily laugh at that statement.] Centrist Democrats may soon find themselves engage in similar battles with fellow Democrats of a traditionalist (and often, progressive) mindset, especially California, where Gov. Brown has been skeptical of reform measures in general (and is likely just as opposed to Common Core) because he thinks they are efforts in social engineering. Apparently Brown and Malkin share similar thinking.
But Common Core isn’t the only issue on which centrist Democrats and conservative reformers find themselves unable to count on their ideological fellow-travelers for support. Centrist and liberal Democrat reformers have suffered a string of defeats at the ballot box over the past three years, with longstanding champions such as former state senator Gloria Romero losing to traditionalists such as Torlakson in primary races for offices such as state superintendent. In other states such as Connecticut, reform-minded Democrat governors such as Dannel Malloy find themselves sparring with fellow Democrats in control of legislatures just to pass reform measures and budgets to fund them. Meanwhile conservative reformers in Republican-dominated states such as Alabama and Virginia have learned over the past two years that they can’t count on those majorities when it comes to passing teacher quality and school choice measures. In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (along with allies in the state senate) spent two years using their political capital to convince fellow Republicans in control of the Cotton State’s lower house to accede in passing what ended up being a relatively modest charter school expansion law. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has had as much trouble convincing fellow Republicans to expand the Wolverine State’s public school choice initiative and voucherize school funding as he has had success in passing measures allowing the state to take control of failing districts and other local governments.
For both centrist Democrat and conservative reformers, the roots of the sparring with ideological fellow-travelers are both political and philosophical.
In most cases, battles over reform have far less to do with political ideologies than with the power relationships (and often complementary views on the potential of poor and minority children) that often exist at the state and even school district levels. For centrist Democrats, the NEA and AFT remain formidable (albeit weakened) foes within the party because of their vast war chests and rank-and-file members, both of which the unions use to keep Democrat legislators in line. The two unions, especially the AFT, use their longstanding ties to old-school civil rights groups (particularly the NAACP, whose aging members also tend to be rank-and-file teachers’ union members), and successful co-opting to support Democrat legislators opposed to reform; this includes the aging cadre of old-school black politicians (including Virginia State Sen. Henry Marsh) who are reliable foes of expanding choice.
As for conservative reformers? They have to deal with the fact that school districts are often the biggest employers in their communities and the most-powerful political players in southern and rust-belt states. Plenty of state legislators, regardless of party affiliation, have gotten their start serving on the school board with support from the local teachers’ union affiliate; their relatives often also work for the district in some capacity. These relationships, along with the interest of politicians in keeping office, often lead to Republican legislators — especially those representing suburban districts opposed to any disruption in their monopolies — being far less interested in embracing any sort of systemic reform. It is why until recently, states such as Tennessee often limited the growth of charter schools to big-city locales.
Then there are the ideological complications with which both reform camps must deal. The ideological opposition of progressives to anything that smacks of private-sector involvement means that 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. This thinking (along with their general view that education can be used as a form of indoctrination — a view also shared among many movement conservatives — even through both Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek and history have shown that attempts to do so never really work out) makes it easier for progressives to join arms with NEA and AFT affiliates, whose leadership often mouth such views (even as they are paid as well as counterparts in the corporate realm). It makes sense. Progressives not focused on education and traditionalists tend to also engage in the same anti-intellectualism.
Meanwhile conservative reformers have to win over both public intellectuals among movement conservatives (who are focused more on the expansive role of the federal government in civil society than on education, whose complications often defy ideological orthodoxy on both left and right), populists (who want to preserve what they consider to be traditional values such as the idea that the government that is best is the one at the local level that is, in theory, closest to the people), and even social conservatives and libertarians (both of which want government out of the education business). Any reform effort that doesn’t match either perspective will be opposed strongly, even if it helps their children. It is why movement conservatives have opposed Common Core even as they have to privately admit the low quality of curricula provided in schools, and have to accede that expanding choice alone won’t address those issues. The fact that many movement conservatives have forgotten that it is an important to make what government that does exist work effectively as possible as it is to reduce its scope — an important principle at the heart of the movement itself since the days of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — is also part of the problem.
None of this should surprise either centrist Democrat or conservative reformers. If anything, the success of the school reform movement has been driven by bipartisan efforts that involved defying opposition from their respective ideological fellow-travelers. In Indiana, for example, the alliance between a cadre of centrist Democrats and conservative Republicans (including former state higher education commissioner Stan Jones, an appointee of former Hoosier State governor and later U.S. Senator Evan Bayh, and state Rep. Robert Behning, who chairs the lower house’s education committee), led to the array of reforms that weren’t necessarily embraced by either party’s more-orthodox wings. Same is true in Florida, where both Democrat Lawton Chiles and Republican Jeb Bush would be responsible for the most-successful state-level reform effort. And this was made especially clear within the past decade, especially at the federal level, with the work of George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy (along with current House Speaker John Boehner) in passing No Child.
Centrist Democrat and conservative reformers simply cannot succeed in advancing their efforts without working together. This is especially true as both No Child and the Obama Administration’s less-than-useful effort to eviscerate the law’s accountability provisions have reaffirmed the role of states in overseeing education. This means embracing an approach similar to that of Wayne Wheeler, the legendary head of the Anti-Saloon League who successfully worked with all comers to pass the 18th Amendment that led to Prohibition. Part of that work must also include engaging families — especially single-parent households, grandparents, immigrant households, and even social conservative families — who understand the need for systemic reform. This starts with listening closely to those families, as well as addressing the safety and school climate issues that greatly concern them (which are a byproduct of the nation’s education crisis).
At the same time, both camps of reformers must strongly challenge the thinking of their ideological fellow-travelers, even if it means making one’s allies a little unhappy. After all, if school reformers have to challenge each other’s thinking, then they should challenge their politically ideological allies as well, especially if it perpetuates practices that lead to poor and minority kids being condemned to poverty and prison. Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern did a fine service earlier this month in following Dropout Nation‘s suggestion to conservative reformers last month by challenging movement conservatives in the pages of National Review. Both camps need to engage in that kind of challenging — and given the conspiracy-theorizing and misinformation by Common Core foes (as well as the overall nastiness of Democrat allies of traditionalist opponents), playing hardball is not an option. Centrist Democrats, in particular, should press progressives on how they can stand with NEA and AFT affiliates when their opposition to choice — as well as their defense of defined-benefit pensions (and their massive deficits) — hurts the very poor and minority children for who they claim concern.
Reformers on both sides must also make clear to their fellow-travelers the political advantages that can come from embracing all aspects of systemic reform. After all, at the end of the day, politicians and activists want to win as much as they want to be ideologically pure. Conservative reformers, for example, can note to other Republicans how embracing Common Core can actually help the party win support in big cities as part of a comprehensive effort that includes immigration reform and addressing the quality-of-life issues that Democrats can sometimes ignore to their peril. At the same time, centrist Democrat reformers can articulate to other Democrats how supporting the overhaul of traditional teacher compensation would actually help free up money that can be used to address other concerns, especially funding early childhood education. Reformers on both sides must also find ways to help politicians within their respective ranks (as well as hold them accountable for not standing for overhauling American public education). Helping a state representative craft answers to questions posed by constituencies who may oppose those reforms would certainly be helpful.
For both centrist Democrat and conservative reformers, the battles with their politically ideological fellow-travelers won’t cease. It is best to build upon their bipartisan alliance, while also forcing their allies within Democratic and Republican Party ranks to answer for their defense of policies and practices that cannot be defended.