Why Populist Progressives Must Embrace The Education Spring

Jeff Bryant

Is there really “a populist energy building in America, and beginning to drive the debate in the Democratic Party,” as my colleague Robert Borosage recently wrote?

If your inclination is to answer that question, “Yes,” the evidence you’re most apt to cite is the popularity of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and her crusade against Wall Street dominance of public policy. And you’re apt to point to, as Borosage does, activism like the “Fight for 15” campaign, demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage and union representation in the workplace.

Other issues that often make the checklist for progressive activism are debt-free higher education, Social Security expansion, clean-energy, and affordable healthcare.

Does all this grassroots activism matter at the ballot box?

Borosage contends it does, and points to, among other evidence, the recent Chicago mayoral election where Democratic incumbent Rahm Emanuel, “tagged as the mayor of the 1 percent,” went from an “expected coronation” to “an unprecedented runoff against a populist challenger.”

Borosage is not the only person making this argument.

David Sirota, writing for Salon, argues that Emanuel’s surprisingly contentious reelection is evidence that “the old corporate Democratic assumption” is being challenged by “a massive grassroots organizing campaign” opposing Wall Street.

The fact Emanuel won doesn’t refute the argument. As another of my colleagues, Richard Eskow, observes, “The fact that Emanuel was forced into Chicago’s first mayoral runoff is itself a sign of vulnerability for corporate-friendly politicians.”

So, Eskow asks, “Why was a powerful mayor forced into a runoff in a city known for patronage and machine politics, despite the backing of wealthy interests and national party leaders?”

Why indeed.

Eskow cites a number of reasons for Emanuel’s vulnerability, including “privatization of many government functions” and his ties to Wall Street “investors and other financial interests.”

But if you want to get more specific, what likely animated voters’ desire to oust Emanuel was his attacks on public schools and school teachers. That’s the argument John Nichols, writing for The Nation, makes. “The fact that there is a race at all,” he contends, “owes everything to the evolving debate over education policy.”

Nichols argues, “Emanuel would not have faced serious competition had he not ordered the closing of dozens of neighborhood schools, as part of an ongoing fight with public-education advocates and the Chicago Teachers Union.”

In fact, the leader of the teachers’ union, Karen Lewis, was considered to be a formidable opponent for Emanuel until she was sidelined for health reasons.

Although Nichols praises Emanuel’s eventual opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, for being “an outspoken champion of teachers and neighborhood schools,” Garcia was likely not outspoken enough to press his advantage on the education issue.

That’s the conclusion that Black Agenda Report’s Bruce Dixon makes. In an interview with the senior editor for The Real News, Paul Jay, Dixon argues, Garcia likely fell short of victory because “he couldn’t denounce the mayor’s educational policies” with the fervor and authenticity that Karen Lewis would have done.

Anger at the mayor’s public education policies was at its height in 2012, when public school teachers went on strike to defy the mayor’s agenda of cutting school budgets, expanding class sizes, increasing the number of charter schools while closing neighborhood schools, and requiring teachers to work longer hours for the same pay.

As I observed in 2013, the Chicago teachers’ strike became a symbol, as well as a catalyst for other actions, for a national movement – an Education Spring – that has since swept the country and now defines the political debate in education policy.

That national movement continues to coalesce around four common grievances voters have with public school policy, which include: resource deprivation, inequity of funding, public disempowerment in the system, and the widespread perception that governing policies are driven by corruption.

Dixon’s contention is that Garcia didn’t fare as well with African-American voters – a significant part of the Chicago electorate – because he failed to connect his candidacy to that national movement and its anger with “federal education policy that’s designed to create excuses to discredit and close public schools, and privatize them.”

Dixon points to a “national policy of privatization” of public schools in black and brown communities that is being carried out across the nation – in “not just Chicago,” Dixon explains, but also “Philadelphia … New York … Kansas City … Atlanta.” This is “why President Obama parachuted his mayor into Chicago in the first place,” he states, “the reason why Rahm Emanuel was able to raise and spend ten or twelve times as much” as Garcia.

What kept Garcia from denouncing the national campaign to privatize public education, Dixon maintains, was the fact “he was a Democrat” and the privatization agenda “is national policy … the way the Democrat Party goes.”

Dixon is not alone in thinking this. Nichols, as well, contends, “Democrats … often go as far – even further – than conservative Republicans in embracing the wrong thinking of those who would undermine public education with ‘charter’ experiments, voucher schemes, and privatization plans.”

It’s not terribly surprising that “centrist Democrats,” as Dixon brands liberals who push the privatization of public schools, would work to undermine public education. The money backing this national campaign to undermine public schools and schoolteachers – what education historian Diane Ravitch calls “The Billionaire Boys Club” – is an open ATM for any political candidate willing to align with it.

In fact, the same centrist Democrats willing to sell out public schools are the same ones willing to compromise with Republicans to cut Social Security, the same Democrats who side with financial policies coming from Wall street, the same Democrats who undermine union organizing and collective bargaining for the sake of “letting the free market work.”

So it’s understandable why the corporate branch of the Democratic Party won’t speak up when public schools are under attack. But why won’t more progressives?

That’s the question recently posed by public education advocate and former classroom teacher Anthony Cody on his personal blog. Surveying an email he received from the progressive activist group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Cody notes support for public K-12 education isn’t on the checklist of policy points PCCC is urging “all candidates for president to campaign on.”

“There is no mention of K12 education,” he remarks. “No mention of the issues confronting public schools, the attempts to privatize, voucherize and charterize our schools. No mention of school closures in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. No mention of assaults on teacher unions and due process rights. No mention of the test obsession destroying the quality of education in our schools, leading students to walk out by the thousands.”

Cody wonders when Democrats in general, and progressives in particular, will “wake up to the movement of teachers, parents, and students that is taking shape across the country.”

Maybe they are. One sign is that after Cody’s complaint spread throughout the Internet, a spokesperson for PCCC contacted him to assure there was “a lot of common ground to build on.”(Cody also invited someone from PCCC to attend the upcoming  Network for Public Education conference in Chicago later this month.)

The other, more important sign is that advocacy for public schools can pay off for progressive candidates at the ballot box.

In both Chuy Garcia’s strong challenge to Rahm Emanuel, and, as Nichols points out, law professor Zephyr Teachout’s “exceptionally strong Democratic primary challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo,” support for public schools was an influential factor in getting people to the polls.

In the midterm elections of 2014, we saw how discontent with the economy determined much of the outcome. A coalition pushing the fight for public education showed up only here and there – such as in Tom Wolf’s triumph over Republican incumbent Governor Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania.

Because 2016 will be a general election drawing from a wider swath of the electorate, support for public education is apt to matter more.

Nichols goes so far to contend, “Until Democrats are solidly supportive of public education, it is difficult to see how they will effectively counter Republicans like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who have aligned themselves with the billionaire proponents of an ‘education reform’ movement that is all about deforming and diminishing the promise of the great equalizer.”

That support for public education will matter that much to Democratic candidates in general can perhaps be argued either way. But for candidates who claim to be progressive, it’s a dead cinch.

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