‘Better Than Republicans’ Not Good Enough For Education

Jeff Bryant

A common admonition progressives have gotten used to hearing over the years is to support more conservative Democratic candidates because “Republicans are worse.”

This admonition makes some sense in electoral politics, when, in most cases, progressives face a ballot box decision where they have to choose the “lesser evil” instead of someone who wants to do something really horrible like roll back government policies to what was in favor a hundred years ago. Elections, after all, are societal constructions where you’re forced to make a choice between only two candidates, usually. To not vote at all forfeits your right to have a say-so in the matter. And few Americans get the opportunity to vote for third-party candidates who have viable shots at winning.

But “better than the other side” loses any legitimacy in the policy arena, or at least it should. For sure, there are often trade-offs between adversaries in the legislative process. But when there’s not an actual bill facing an up-or-down vote, there’s simply no reason for progressives to accept policy positions from officeholders on the basis of those positions being better than what the other side wants.

Yet progressives who push for polices reflecting their values are constantly scolded for exhibiting a “have it all fantasy.” They’re told to give centrist Democrats “credit” for positions where there is some agreement – such as marriage equality or climate change – and understand when those officials have to make deals with the other side. “That’s how the game is played,” goes the refrain.

When it comes to the education policy arena, “the game” has played into a disaster for the nation’s schoolteachers, parents and students.

Two new interviews with leading voices in the progressive education movement have brought to light how policy compromises forged by centrist Democrats have enabled truly bad consequences for public education. And progressives are increasingly saying “enough.”

A “Catalyst For Something Really Idiotic”

The “better than the other side” retort came to the fore in my recent interview with Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the charmingly feisty new president-elect of the National Education Association at the 2014 Netroots Nation convention in Detroit.

Quick to rise to the top of our discussion were recent actions by both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers to demand the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

A particular sore spot for the unions has been the department’s insistence that states wanting federal grant money or waivers to harsh legal penalties imposed by the feds put into place elaborate evaluation systems that rate classroom teachers based, to varying extents, on student test scores. Eskelsen Garcia echoed what many educators and experts have said that these types of test-based evaluations are unfair to teachers and encourage schools to cheat or game the system in order to hit their numbers.

For the first time in public, she spoke of her conversation with Duncan on July 16, the first discussion between them since the unions had called for his resignation. “He’s very upset with the NEA Representative Assembly’s decision to call for his resignation,” she recalled. “He felt he wasn’t being given enough credit from NEA for advocating for expanded early childhood education and greater access to affordable college. And it’s true there is no light between us on those issues.”

But as Eskelsen Garcia pointed out, “Sure, we get pre-K dollars and Head Start, but it’s being used to teach little kids to bubble in tests so their teachers can be evaluated. And we get policies to promote affordable college, but no one graduating from high school gets an education that has supported critical and creative thinking that is essential to succeeding in college because their education has consisted of test-prep from Rupert Murdoch. The testing is corrupting what it means to teach.”

In other words, being for something that progressives usually want – expanding education opportunities to more of the nation’s young children and college-aged students – can’t absolve a Democratic administration from implementing bad policies taken from the other side of the political spectrum – in this case, harsh measures that punish teachers and schools for conditions that are by and large out of their control.

Eskelsen Garcia told Duncan, “When you required states to base their education programs mostly on test scores, and let states respond with ‘OK, we’ll just do this,’ you encouraged bad policy. You became the catalyst for something really idiotic.”

Eskelsen Garcia is far from being the only progressive voice criticizing the status quo in education policy making.

“A Sorry Substitute When Government Gives Up

One of the most outspoken and articulate parent advocates for public schools is Helen Gym from Philadelphia.

Gym, who co-founded the grassroots activist group Parents United for Public Education, was also on hand at Netroots Nation where she appeared on a panel “Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education.”

A reporter, Bill Hangley Jr., for the local Philadelphia news outlet The Notebook caught up with Gym after the event and asked her to reflect on her experiences there.

What she described is an awakening among progressives to the reality of education “reform” policies pushed onto communities by the Obama administration and a host of conservative state governors.

As a result of these policies, “We’re seeing public land being turned over to private enterprises,” Gym explained, “labor rights being undermined, state takeovers and emergency managers upending democratic governance of schools, schools closed down and communities devastated in their wake.”

Current education reform policies, Gym insisted, are “a launching pad for some of the grossest abuses in the dismantling of public services nationwide. In Detroit, an emergency manager who superseded an elected school board and shuttered dozens of city schools was simply a precursor for a city emergency manager who overran local governance and was shutting off water to hundreds of thousands of Detroit residents, while letting wealthy delinquents like golf courses and sports teams off the hook.”

Gym was particularly critical of political leaders on the left who have abandoned the cause of education equity to rally around the right-wing notion that a market based approach that provides more “choice” will improve education results.

“We used to have an equity agenda in this country,” she lamented, “where our public schools’ vision, despite their flaws, became a model for the world. Moneyed interests have poured millions into convincing the public to walk away from that social contract. But choice is just a sorry substitute when government gives up on equity.”

“No Longer Neutral Territory”

For years, education policy has been portrayed as a neutral ground where political factions were supposed to “meet in the middle” and agree to do “what’s best for kids.” This was never really true, but the narrative played well to the media and to policy elites.

But “education reform” has mostly been a product of groupthink built on a consensus without diversity and without the input of skeptics. Now that the false consensus is crumbling, people on the ground are more determined to take control of the narrative and make politics about fighting the free-market assault on the common good.

“At Netroots,” Gym observed, “I think the future was really laid out for us by the Rev. William Barber, leader of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, who called for fusion politics and mass coalition-building to reestablish a real and moral civil rights agenda of our time – of which education is but one part. This is where I see the future going and what inspires me today.”

“People in the progressive movement have to realize,” Eskelsen Garcia asserted, “that regardless of the particular fight they are engaged in, it starts with education. Whether you’re fighting for environmental causes, women’s rights, voting rights, all of these causes – and the very foundations of democracy and how our society makes decisions – start at a schoolhouse door.”

Gym echoed these views, saying, “You’re naive if you don’t make the connection between what’s happening to our schools and communities and what we’re doing more broadly as a nation in terms of attacks on poverty, attacks on immigrants – most of whom are in our public schools, too – and attacks on women and women in labor, in particular.

“For a growing number of progressives, education is not neutral territory.”

But is public concern over education significant enough to change the political equation?

Both Gym and Eskelsen Garcia believe the public concern is building and in some communities is influencing elections. Gym noted that progressive activism animated by the fight for public schools made critical differences in recent mayoral races in New York City and Newark. Eskelsen Garcia stated, “We’ve proven that when we ask people to sign petitions and show up at the ballot box to support public schools, they will. And they will do it in droves.”

As my colleague Robert Borosage recently observed, “Providing a fair and healthy shot for every child requires reversing the conservative retreats of the last decades.”

The “economy that does not work for working families,” which Borosage decried, is being mimicked by education policies that don’t work either. This policy agenda “won’t be changed without fierce battles to dislodge powerful and entrenched interests and change the rules.” The fact that centrist Democrats don’t really get this is what is animating progressives in ways not seen since the fight for civil rights.

“These fights will be at the center of our political debates over the next years,” Borosage wrote. “They will be pitched battles against powerful interests. Politicians will have to decide which side they are on.”

Those politicians had better choose carefully.

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