fresh voices from the front lines of change







What will $12 million get you? How about a "conversation about education?"

That's what a new organization ,Education Post, aims to get for its "initial grants," courtesy of, according to education reporter Lindsay Layton of The Washington Post, " the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, and an anonymous donor."

In a debut post, the organization's leader Peter Cunningham – a former "communications guru" for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, according to Layton – called for a "new conversation."

That "new conversation" Cunningham wants, is less “screaming at each other from across the aisle … an honest, open conversation … based on the facts.”

Layton also quoted Bruce Reed – former chief executive of the Democratic Leadership Council and now president of the Broad Foundation that "originated" the new site – who said the idea for Education Post came from “a shared disappointment in the tenor of the debate.”

Education Post is not being terribly original here. Recent calls for more "civility" in discussions about education and for taking "the politics" and "partisanship" out of policy debates are suddenly all the rage among the edu-policy crowd gravitating around Washington, D.C.

There are reasons why Beltway-inspired education wonks are calling out the tone police – but it's got very little to do with honesty and "facts." Instead, read a little more deeply into these calls for taking "the politics" out of the debate, and what you find is itself a rather political agenda.

Bipartisan Banality

Echoing the Education Post's zeal for making nice over differences on education policy, two right-wing think tank operatives who have differed in public over the Common Core Standards recently declared their determination to overcome the acrimony of that debate.

Writing in The Washington Times, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom endeavored to lay out "the facts on which we think everyone should agree."

Looking past the hubris of a claim to overcome differences that include only those held by conservatives, their facts are "technically" – a word they use in describing the process used to adopt the "voluntary" standards – true. Yet the facts they put forth are very carefully chosen, ignoring, for instance, the fact that the standards are by-and-large a product of the testing industry, without much influence from educators and parents.

From another conservative corner, columnist Juan Williams, writing for The Hill, came the similar call for "getting beyond the tired old fights" in education policy. His preference was to declare a "crisis in the nation’s schools" and steel political leaders to direct federal money to school voucher programs and do something about all those "bad teachers" that plague the system.

Unfortunately for Williams, his arguments happen to be the oldest and "tiredest" of all.

School vouchers, Greg Anrig has reminded us, were originally conceived by the economist Milton Friedman in 1955 and have been a cornerstone of Republican education policy since the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan. And education journalist Dana Goldstein, in her new book The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, reminds us that as far back as the early 1800s, "the history of education reform shows … recurring attacks on veteran educators."

In his review of Goldstein's book appearing in The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky equated current calls for weeding out America's "bad teachers" Reagan-era claims about a scourge of "welfare queens." He wrote, "If welfare mothers are the cause of poverty, then you can solve the problem of poverty with tighter restrictions on welfare mothers. If teachers are the problem with education, then you can solve the problem of education with ever more vigorous control, and ever more constant evaluation, of teachers."

(Interestingly, Williams also conflates vouchers and teacher tenure with renewing No Child Left Behind, which has nothing to do with either of those issues.)

Outside of conservative circles (sort of), former press secretary for the Clinton White House, Mike McCurry recently lamented "an American political system ripped apart by partisanship." The salve to apply to the bitterness – indeed, "the antidote to the poison that’s now invaded our political system” – McCurry believes is to rally around "the school choice movement."

Interestingly, McCurry's remarks were carried by a conservative education policy outlet RefinedED, illustrating the absurdity of calls for consensus between right and left on education policy that is absent of any representation from what is truly "left."

"The school choice movement’s appeal to all points on the political spectrum is a source of pride, McCurry said. The movement needs to continue doing the hard work of making the center hold, of putting aside differences on other issues to find common ground on kids and education."

No doubt, McCurry has not been to Newark, N.J. lately, where a new plan for district wide "school choice" is not being opposed by "partisanship," but by the parents and students in that community.

In a similar vein, New America's Conor William, writing at the online news outlet The Daily Beast, recently hailed the achievement of charter schools, no doubt part of the "bipartisan" composition of the "school choice movement."

Noting that three charter schools were in the top echelon of an annual ranking of best performing American high schools, Williams declared there was "growing evidence – borne out by this year’s rankings – that the charter approach can make an extraordinary difference for students."

Williams may want to look a little more deeply to notice that the charter schools he recommended for the rest of America have "student bodies that are disproportionately affluent and white." They also experience very high student attrition and graduate very small numbers of students.

The Outsiders Want To Be Heard

In an attempt to clarify the standoff over education policy, Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute (yet another conservative Beltway think tank) recently wrote that the divide over education policy was between two easily delineated factions that are bent on "reform."

On the one hand, you had "progressive" reformers who "have historically been wedded to a technocratic vision … and a belief that the right policies and programs can cure society's ills." And on the other hand, there are "conservative" reformers who "respect the limits of government."

In this mutually held "reform" agenda, the "points of traditional agreement" – charter schools, incentivizing/ punishing teachers, Teach For America, and so forth – seem unchangeable, while oppositional lines are drawn only over the issues of "means and ends."

This analysis may all be well and true. It just leaves out the vast majority of Americans. Surveys show that what Americans have a problem with are more than just issues of means and ends of "reform." They're increasingly disturbed by what's being posed to them as "reform" altogether.

What Hess described is really just a view from the "inside" of the debate. Now the "outsiders" want to be heard.

Score One For The Education Spring

The tables didn't start turning just last week.

Let's go back in time to a white, hot moment that illustrates what's really happening today.

It was June 2011. It was Madison, Wisconsin. Republican legislators had come prepared to ram through a radical education agenda that included taking away teachers' collective bargaining rights, rolling out Milwaukee’s deeply flawed voucher program to the rest of the state, expanding charter schools, and drastically cutting public school budgets.

At the time, teachers were clamoring from the state house rafters, parents and students pitched tents and carried signs in protest to what was befalling their communities, and public school activists were banging drums of resistance to seeing the common good stolen away from them.

What did the "insiders" think then?

At the time, a field operative for the Democrats for Education Reform observed that the “worst part” of the conflagration was not the drastic harm being done to Wisconsin communities and their school children. No, the “worst part” was the “fall of bipartisanship on education.”

That bipartisanship, I wrote at the time, consisted chiefly of declaring education "a crisis, blame the teachers, bring in the privatizers, and muster financial backing from Wall St. to push it through."

What's changed since then is that the Wisconsin stirrings erupted into an Education Spring sweeping the nation, and the voices of those on the outside, who reject the education bipartisan agenda crafted by insiders, have increased in volume and intensity.

The outsiders are now becoming more organized too and have started to reach into the confines of Beltway think tanks and foundation boardrooms.

Recently, the group Democrats for Public Education formed to counter the weak complicity represented by Democrats for Education Reform and other groups whose views completely fail to include the progressive majority.

One of that group's chief leaders, Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile, decried those "under the guise of 'education reform,' undermining America's public schools."

In sharp contrast to the insider consensus that has ruled education policy for years, Brazile observed:

"Here's what dedicated parents and seasoned educators all across the country see: stalled reform efforts, poor implementation of programs, and nervous students spending 30 percent of their school year on test preparation. By speaking out about this troubling pattern, teachers are exemplifying what it truly means to be answerable to and responsible for the well-being of children…"

No one benefits when 'education experts' – many with only a couple years in the classroom and some with none at all – tell teachers that their expertise doesn't matter and they don't have the best interests of children at heart. When you peel back the onion, it's clear these well-orchestrated attacks are coming from nothing more than a few well-funded, vocal groups intent on cherry-picking statistics and warping facts."

She concluded, "Enough is enough. It's time we collectively push back against efforts to undermine America's education system, our teachers, and the kids themselves."

This may not be the education conversation the reformers want. But it's the one they're going to get.

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