The Coalition For An Education Agenda Isn’t There, Yet

Jeff Bryant

The anticipated role education was presumed to have in this week’s midterm election generally did not pan out.

Most analysts have concluded the election results derived from a wave of voter “discontent” mostly due to widespread economic dissatisfaction. Republican candidates were generally successful at attributing economic problems to the “failure” of the Obama presidency.

As my colleague Robert Borosage summarized, “The election was fundamentally about frustration with a recovery that most people haven’t enjoyed … The Republican theme was to blame President Obama and tie Democrats to him, arousing their base.”

The election results were also driven to a great deal by an outpouring of conservative big money. As long as Republicans have anchor-store status in the mall of the dark money influencing elections, they will have a strong advantage unless Democrats are able to muster large turnouts that reflect widespread popular support. But Democrats have been reluctant to view populism as a viable strategy to combat the big money leveraged against them.

Regarding education specifically, there were races here and there where the issue served an out-sized role in determining results. So proponents claiming the mantle of “education reform” have been quick to jump on the one-sided election results as proof-positive of widespread voter support for their ideas, which include competitive charter schools, vouchers to transfer public education money into private hands, and harsh accountability measures to punish schools and teachers for the circumstances they have very little control over.

Operatives from the conservative American Enterprise Institute opined that the mid term results would give conservatives an opportunity to take the lead on education reform. Another right-wing operative Mike Petrtilli of the Thomas B. Fordaham Foundation, reviewed the Republican victories and concluded, “This will be good for education reform.”

First, it’s hard to believe a huge outpouring to defeat Obama – arguably the most powerful force ever to push for “education reform” – is somehow a resounding call for more education reform.

Second, what results from the midterms mostly revealed is an education agenda has yet to have its day in the sun, electorally, and any agenda for the nation’s schools will have to be bound into a coalition of other, more populist, causes.

It Takes A Coalition

Education showed its biggest presence in voters’ minds in the era of No Child Left Behind when a coalition formed to put the issue in a more populist frame.

That coalition was formed by centrist politicians, civil right rights groups, and business-minded policy advocates who believed they had come upon a magical method to ensure 100 percent of students would be proficient in math and reading by 2014. But today, the political parties have grown more extreme, civil rights groups have come to understand the promise of 100 percent proficiency was a lie, and business interests now view education as less of a cause and more of a sector to co-opt for private ownership.

Absent of another broad coalition like the one that existed in the NCLB era, education is struggling to find an entrée status on campaign menus.

In midterm contests this year, Pennsylvania was an exception where education topped the list of concerns among voters in the governor’s race pitting Republican incumbent Tom Corbett against Democratic challenger Tom Wolf.

Corbett enacted significant budget cuts to schools which voters tended to view negatively, and Wolf capitalized on the voter anger to win. But the Wolf campaign successfully melded education with other issues, taking strong stances on populist issues related to economics. Wolf’s campaign talked about creating jobs – particularly manufacturing jobs – for middle class workers, making corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and equal pay for women.

Contrast that to the campaign of incumbent Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina, another state where education was a top issue in the election, but also where the economy ended up being a more important driver of votes.

In that race, Hagan successfully tied her opponent Tom Tillis to his leading role in cutting education spending while serving as the Speaker of the House in the state’s legislature. But the Hagan campaign was an exemplar of Democratic centrism, touting her as an ardent moderate (as if there is such a thing) and advertising her as a “deficit hawk” who would balance budgets without increasing taxes. She lost.

Wisconsin was another state where a Republican candidate, sitting Governor Scott Walker, seemed vulnerable on education, but his opponent Mary Burke was unable to link his record of cutting schools to other, more populist causes. Walker was successful, an analyst at Slate concluded, because he “tapped into the cycle’s near-universal anti-Washington sentiment” and maintained a popular “man of the people” image (a false image for sure) that eschewed big money and out-of-state interests. Walker won.

A Coalition Of Contradictions

So based on mid-term results, where is the coalition voting for an agenda of education reform?

For years, fans of education reform have linked their campaign to the cause of civil rights, claiming that charter schools and strict accountability measures for teachers are part of an agenda for poor black and brown kids.

But the midterm election results were mostly about the resurgence of white male voters. As a post-election analysis in The New York Times explained, “Voters who turned out Tuesday were older, whiter, and more conservative.” That article quoted conservative Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina who said, “When a diverse electorate shows up, Republicans struggle to win.”

Do reformers honestly claim this is the demographic that cares about “the civil rights issue of our time”?

Education reform’s adherence to politicians who are mostly Republican and resoundingly white eventually undoes them on the ground in places that are Democratic and diverse.

In New Jersey, for instance, the education reform bus ran aground in communities of color when voters turned out to defeat measures closely aligned to the reform cause. In Bayonne, voters chose overwhelmingly to change from a mayoral appointed school board – a favored status in reform circles – to an elected school board. In Hoboken, opposition to charter schools was a decisive issue in a race that swept into office a new slate of the school board candidates.

The other notable constituent for education reform – business interests and wealthy private foundations – also clashes with a cause that claims to have roots in underserved communities.

That contradiction was most glaringly revealed in the race for state superintendent of schools in California, where incumbent and former teacher Tom Torlakson squared off against Marshall Tuck, a charter school administrator with a background in finance.

The contest was cast as a clash over “education reform,” and the candidates, both Democrats, indeed presented strong contrasts, with Torlakson being supportive of public schools and classroom teachers and Tuck advocating the need to “disrupt” education with more charter schools and stricter, managerial oversight of educators and school performance.

In a race that cost over $30 million, $25 million from outside groups, Torlakson was backed by labor unions and progressive activists while Tuck got the support of establishment newspapers and, according to one source, “30 donors who gave on average $267,000 each, including real estate developer William Bloomfield, Jr., Broad Foundation founder Eli Broad, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Emerson Collective Chair Laurene Powell Jobs.”

In California – a state generally supportive of traditionally Democratic values represented by unions, conservation groups, and organizations supportive of diversity and women’s rights – having a spokesperson for education reform so closely aligned to wealthy interests did not bode well for a candidacy like Tuck’s, and Torlakson prevailed.

The result of the Torlaskon-Tuck contest is yet another sign that strongly Democratic constituencies are increasingly uncomfortable in supporting education reform, and reformers will have to rely more on Republicans to carry their water.

Indeed the “bipartisan” aura of education reform seems to be waning in general. As yet another right-wing education operative Andy Smarick surmised, there doesn’t appear to be “a credible, ed reform-oriented” voice in the Democratic Party. And offers of reform coming from Democrats are increasingly unlikely to woo Republican votes. In fact, in midterm elections in Colorado, when the group Democrats for Education Reform – an advocacy group of Republican money masquerading as centrist Democrats – made a high-spending bid to grab control of the state education board, their slate lost.

One Thing That’s Clear

While education reformers continue to present a coalition built on contradiction, those who oppose their agenda have yet to build a strong coalition of their own.

That was blatantly evident in the drubbing that the teachers’ unions took in the midterm, particularly in Wisconsin and Florida, where unions spent heavily and their candidates were soundly defeated.

Were the election to draw an electorate more traditionally aligned to the Democratic Party – with higher participation from the African American and Latino community and more support from younger voters and single mothers – the results may have been different but not assured.

Unfortunately, too often Democrats, as Harold Myerson explained for the American Prospect, find themselves stuck in an “intellectual and ideological” vacuum, where they have little to offer to voters angered about seeing their lot in lives continually worsened. The party’s problems with winning elections, as Ezra Klein noted in his analysis, aren’t with demographics, a structural disadvantage, or holding incumbency. They simply lack messages that resonate enough to draw out their reliable base and tap more Independent voters.

There’s evidence that Democrats can get their house in order when they adopt more populist messages that align with coalitions that advocate for economic fairness and social equity. Advocates for public schools won’t reliably win elections until that they embrace that coalition and successfully push the party that direction.

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