Democratic Party’s Divide On Education Policy Gets Worse

Jeff Bryant

Political pundits who try to tamp down talk of divisions within the Democratic Party must not be paying any attention to education policy.

For quite some time, close observers of the nation’s education policy have been calling attention to the fault lines between education progressives in the Democratic Party and Third Way-style centrists, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Democrats for Education Reform, who lean toward a market-based, econometric philosophy for public education governance.

As Furman University education professor Paul Thomas recently wrote for Alternet, “While the Obama administration has cultivated the appearance of hope and change, its education policies are essentially slightly revised or greatly intensified versions of accountability reform begun under Ronald Reagan.”

But the Democratic Party’s divergence from real progressive values for governing our schools mostly went unnoticed in major media outlets until recently when a few light bulbs went off among political observers. Writing for Slate, Matt Yglesias noticed, “Education reform, not ‘populism’ divides Democrats.” Then, Connor Williams of the New America Foundation saw the light and explained for The New Republic, “In 2016, Democrats have good reason to run against Obama’s education record.”

Now, Jonathan Chait has penned a piece for New York Magazine, “Teachers Unions Turn Against Democrats,” in which he postulates that a “backlash” to President Obama’s education policies, energized by education historian Diane Ravitch, could lead to an alliance between teachers unions and, gulp, Republicans.

For sure, the divide on education policy within the Democratic Party has grown into a Rubicon, and now Democratic candidates and their operatives and supporters need to decide which side makes the most sense to ally with.

The President’s Great Day Goes Sour

The divisions over education policy were all too apparent recently when President Obama joined Secretary Duncan to introduce an ambitious new plan to place more highly qualified teachers in front of students who need those teachers the most.

As education reporter Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post wrote, “The Education Department is directing every state and the District to devise a plan by April 2015 to get more good teachers into their high-poverty schools.”

“This is a really important exercise for the nation to undertake,” Secretary Duncan said.

The White House had already lined up Beltway groups such as The Education Trust to ballyhoo the effort. There would be a press gathering, of course. And to highlight the initiative, Duncan and the president had scheduled lunch with a group of teachers. A grand day for sure.

But at the photo-op luncheon, it seemed the teachers hadn’t gotten the memo. Instead of gabbing about the new teacher equity plan, they apparently talked mostly about “frustration at the lack of resources at their schools and the regularly changing demands of their jobs,” according to Layton.

McClatchy reported the conversation similarly, referring to a North Carolina teacher in attendance who, “Told Duncan that teachers are frustrated because they’re being asked ‘to do something great with minimal resources.’”

And when reporters gathered, the question that was top of mind was not about the President’s new initiative at all. Instead, journalists wanted to know how the administration felt about the nation’s largest teachers’ union calling for Secretary Duncan’s resignation.

Delegates of the National Education Association, meeting in Denver at their annual convention, had just passed a resolution citing the teachers’ objections to the “department’s failed education agenda” and calling for Duncan to resign.

Duncan had initially “brushed off,” according to a report from Politico, the NEA resolution. But the issue is undoubtedly nagging him.

As education journalist Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post wrote, “Duncan can try to downplay the vote … But the NEA vote is a new sign of growing disenchantment with Duncan’s policies from the unions and well beyond them, as parents, principals, superintendents and others protest the Duncan agenda.”

How did the frustrations felt by everyday teachers and the growing resentment their organizations have with Secretary Duncan rule the day?

Frustration Rules The Day

The President’s desire to see the nation’s more experienced and educated teachers distributed in schools is a important for sure. Schools that serve poor, minority kids tend not to get the ones with the deepest resumes. As a recent article from The Huffington Post explained

  • The more affluent the district, the more likely teachers are to have received a master’s degree or higher.
  • Affluent districts tend to employ teachers with more experience.
  • The more white the school, the more likely teachers are to be certified in the subjects they teach.

That news outlet’s education reporter Joy Resmovits wrote in her report on the Obama initiative, “Students in high-poverty schools, a national survey has shown, are twice as likely to have their most important classes taught by teachers without proper certification. And federal data shows that minority students’ teachers on average have less experience than the teachers of their wealthier peers.”

What’s interesting though is that, as The Post’s Layton pointed out, the President’s initiative “doesn’t address the thorny problem of how to identify an effective teacher.” That challenge has been relegated to new teacher evaluation systems that Secretary Duncan has advocated for but teachers abhor.

Those evaluations rely, to varying extents, on how students score on standardized tests. As education historian Diane Ravitch asked when looking over the President’s new teacher equity plan, “Will the Obama administration ever figure out that test scores reflect socioeconomic conditions more than teachers? They might look at research or even the recent report of the American Statistical Association, which attributed 1-14% of score variation to teachers.”

Further, although the new teacher equity plan enforces requirements for states to put experienced and highly qualified teachers in schools serving high numbers of poor and minority students, the Obama administration has steered millions of federal dollars to Teach for America. TFA is an organization that places new teacher recruits from elite colleges and universities into some of the poorest schools in America – after only five weeks of training.

And Secretary Duncan and his supporters claim they want to see more experienced, better educated teachers serving in schools serving poor, black and brown kids. Yet they hail actions, like the recent legal ruling in the Vergara v California case, that undermine the job security of more experienced teachers.

If the President and his supporters really wanted to do more to help ensure more of the nation’s best teachers ended up in front of students who need them the most, they would have embraced guidelines put forth by the Opportunity to Learn campaign last year. OTL’s plan, Excellent Teachers For Each And Every Child: A Guide for State Policy, addressed the many factors that influence teaching quality and equitable distribution, such as learning conditions, school environment, and instructional resources. [Disclosure: OTL is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network and the Campaign for America's Future.]

Yet instead, Duncan has continued to blaze an education policy path that talks out of both sides of its mouth – pronouncing great beliefs in the value of experienced teachers but doing everything possible to undermine them with unfair evaluations, competition from less-credentialed recruits, and attacks on their job protections.

The frustrations teachers feel from these policies – while they grapple with the budget cuts imposed by conservative state governments – have been building for some time. And now they’re boiling over.

Should Democrats care?

Democrats Will Have To Choose

The list of education related legislation pending in Congress is not extensive and may not make any headway in a blocked up, unproductive House and Senate. So now the White House is relying on executive actions, such as its teacher equity initiative, to circumvent congressional gridlock.

But it’s hard to believe that executive actions will have much effect on the ground when the people on the ground, in this case classroom teachers, are not at all supportive.

The fact of the matter is that this presidential administration and some of its most ardent backers have never really gotten education at all.

Amy Dean asked in a recent piece for Truth Out, “Why does the Obama administration keep getting it wrong on education policy?” In her interview with Leo Casey of the American Federation of Teachers, she asked, “The priorities of the Obama administration’s Department of Education seem little changed from the failures of the Bush administration … What sort of policies should we be pushing for?”

In response, Casey outlined a more positive, more progressive way forward, “We need to look at a different way to do accountability that would not be focused on standardized tests, but that would really look at good measures of learning. It would focus not on punishing and negative sanctions, but on improving what’s going on in schools and classrooms. All of that is eminently doable on a national level and with a Democratic administration that is not so enthralled to the market model of reform.”

As my colleague Robert Borosage has argued, the divisions on economic policy among Democrats are “fundamental … grounded on very different perspectives that lead in significantly different directions.”

In the education arena, those fundamental differences have been stewing in the pot for a long time. What teachers and their unions have done now is to finally serve them up to the table.

Now, it’s mostly a matter of seeing who will be the first Democrats to understand those differences and use them as wedge issues to influence the increasingly angry electorate

And when the November election looms on the horizon, and you’re a candidate looking for volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls, organizations like The Education Trust are nowhere to be found. Your local teachers on the other hand?

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