The Big Education Fight In The Democratic Party

Jeff Bryant

The “big economic fight” in the Democratic Party that news outlets are reporting isn’t confined to economics.

The link above takes you to a story in the Washington Post explaining how a “populist wing” in the Democratic Party is rebelling against the conventional wisdom of “centrist” Democrats who have dominated the party since the 1990s.

“Right now the populist story is winning,” the article concludes.

My colleague Richard Eskow pounced on the article and writes for the Huffington Post, “The corporate-friendly policies of the party’s more conservative wing have fared poorly, both as policy and as politics, and as a result the party has moved to the left.”

Eskow points to “the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders” and other recent events as signs of “a major setback for the so-called ‘New Democrats’ who have dominated the party since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Nearly 25 years after they rose to power, the ideas of the ‘New Democrats’ don’t seem so new.”

The Huffington Post’s politics editor Sam Stein notices the leftward swing in the party as well and how it has resulted in a “panic” among centrist Democrats. “Leading architects of the ‘New Democrat’ movement are sounding the alarm over a lurch to the left in the party,” writes a reporter for The Guardian.

The centrist New Democrats faction of the party Eskow refers to is the corporation- and billionaire-friendly bipartisan agenda that embraced “the magic of the market”, outsourced jobs through corporate giveaways like “free trade”, promoted fiscal austerity, pledged to be tough-on-crime, and vowed to make any recipients of government funds more accountable (“welfare reform”). Followers of this philosophy scorned labor unions and heralded the end of the “era of big government.”

But New Democrat bipartisanship has not been confined to economics. The same big money, Wall Street-connected actors behind this bipartisan agenda for the economy have dominated education policy since the 1990s too.

The Disastrous Bipartisan Education Agenda

With a bipartisan agenda in charge of education, devotion to “the market” unleashed more charter schools, and corporate- friendly outsourcing increasingly sent education jobs and services to private contractors such as Teach for America. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s term for financial austerity in our schools was “the new normal”. Tough-on-crime policies in the streets were translated to “no excuse” and “zero tolerance” policies in classrooms. And “welfare reform” for the poor became “education reform” for public schools that demanded those institutions prove their “accountability” with a never-ending avalanche of standardized tests.

But just as corporate-friendly policies for the economy “fared poorly, both as policy and as politics,” to use Eskow’s words, they were a bust on all fronts for education too.

Outsource services like Teacher for America have had a mixed effect on student learning, with some studies, often conducted by TFA itself, showing benefits and others not. But what we do know for sure is that TFA and other organizations like it have populated some of our most struggling schools with teachers who stay less then three years and are mostly all gone from the schools they were placed in after five years. It’s little wonder that TFA is now experiencing problems with maintaining the enthusiasm for their business.

Regarding the bipartisan devotion to tough discipline policies in our schools, Americans are now reeling in horror at online videos showing what zero tolerance, no excuse policies in schools inflict on students.

The “accountability” measures embraced by centrist Democrats are also now being questioned. Protests against the excessive testing the accountability movement demands have become widespread and continue to grow. State governments are stripping away many of the mandated tests they imposed, including high school graduation and college admission tests. Even the test-happy Obama administration, as PBS reports, “says testing has gotten out of hand.”

Now, the conventional wisdom supporting the market competition of charter schools is being questioned as well, this time from the most unlikely source – presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

What Hillary Said

At a town hall held in South Carolina, broadcast by C-Span, Clinton responded to a question about charter schools by saying

I have for many years now, about thirty years, supported the idea of charter schools, but not as a substitute for the public schools, but as a supplement for the public schools. … The original idea behind the charter schools was to learn what worked and then apply them in the public schools. And here’s a couple of problems. Most charter schools, I don’t want to say every one, but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest to teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.

What makes Clinton’s comment particularly startling, notes Valerie Strauss on her blog at the Washington Post, is that “for years – going back to the 1990s – Clinton has expressed support for charter schools.”

Vox education writer Libby Nelson noticed Clinton’s remarks too and writes, “In the 1990s, charter schools were a Clintonian triangulation” response to Republican calls for school vouchers.

So what happened?

Both Strauss and Nelson note recent analyses showing charter schools frequently have higher suspension rates than public schools and use suspensions and other practices to “push out” or “counsel out” struggling students in order to make the schools’ test scores look better than the neighborhood public schools that surround them.

Strauss points to a scandal involving charter school chain Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter business. Strauss quotes a recent story in the New York Times reporting the schools’ practice of “weeding out weak or difficult students” in order to make the chain’s test scores look good. The article told of one Success Academy using a “Got to Go” list to target specific students that should be pushed out.

“Charter schools suspend students at a high rate,” Nelson notes and cites evidence from Washington, DC, and Chicago, in addition to New York City.

Nelson balances her assessment of charter school suspension rates with evidence from studies showing some charter chains don’t have such high rates. But she concludes

Charter schools can expel students, or suspend them so frequently that their parents decide to send them elsewhere, in part because district schools usually exist as a backstop – as Clinton says, ‘they thankfully take everybody.’ That doesn’t mean that test scores are high only because low-achieving students are pushed out. But it does suggest a symbiotic relationship between charter and traditional public schools that charter backers don’t always acknowledge.

Of course, Clinton’s comments about charter schools can’t be taken as definitive statements of where she stands. As reporters for Education Week note, “It’s hard to say” what she precisely meant, and her real intentions won’t likely be known until we know “who Potential President Clinton would pick for her education secretary.”

Nevertheless, what’s telling about the incident is how it has sent New Democrat charter proponents into fits of handwringing.

When Democrats Sound Like Republicans

That same Ed Week post quotes the leader of Democrats for Education Reform – a New Democrat organization if there ever was one – calling “Clinton’s comments ‘highly disappointing’” He worries her remarks bolstered “fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.”

Jeanne Allen, the founder of the charter-loving Center for Education Reform, was particularly enraged, reports the Washington Post. “[Clinton] sounds like an aloof, elite candidate from a bygone era, before ed reform was a reality.”

“We’re very troubled and concerned,” the Post reporter quotes another Democrats for Education Reform official saying. “We don’t want any sort of slowdown on the Obama legacy of expanding high-quality charter seats.”

These reactions to Clinton’s comments from supposed Democrats are strikingly similar to the response of the ultra-conservative Republican-leaning Wall Street Journal. The editors of that news outlet say Clinton’s remark about charter schools “suggests her Education Department would be a wholly owned union subsidiary.” The editors opine, ” If Mrs. Clinton had looked at the evidence, she’d have seen a different story about charters.”

We know, however, that politics in America rarely revolves around evidence. If the argument for charters were based purely on evidence, the spread of these institutions would have been questioned a long time ago instead of promoted as quick cures for struggling schools.

What Evidence?

Anyone interested in examining the evidence of charter schools’ success should check out this fascinating exchange between charter advocate Demitri Melhorn, a businessman and Democrat, and education scholar and classroom teacher Mark Weber, who goes by the handle Jersey Jazzman. Melhorn and Weber go at each other repeatedly in a heated argument about the supposed success of charter schools.

Regardless of how you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with one side or the other in the debate over the alleged superiority of charter schools, two definitive conclusions seem pretty certain: If there are benefits to expanding charter schools, they are torturously complicated to prove, likely not all that much, and mostly discernable through a very poor and narrow-minded measure – scores on standardized tests.

We also know that expansions of charter schools come with very certain costs to existing public schools. As Weber explains in part six of the exchange, “High quality research shows that charter schools have a negative effect on the budgets of their hosting [district] schools. This makes sense, as charters are redundant systems of school administration, and do not allow districts to fully leverage economies of scale. In other words: When every charter school has its own high-paid superintendent and administrative staff, that’s inefficient. And we have more and more evidence that is the price to be paid for ‘choice’. I’d rather see money go into the classroom.”

Yet, very few politicians will wade this deeply into the swamp of the charter school debate. Anecdotes from the New York Times that show charter schools gain their advantages by skimming the cream of the very best students in a given population will always be more politically impactful than research proving they do.

Also, accusing Clinton of selling out to teachers’ unions is laughable. Wall Street and the wealthy foundations that back the education reform agenda have way more money than poorly paid teachers have.

What’s far more likely instead is that the fading promises the New Democrats made for education are coming face to face with the reality of a new and different Democratic Party with much more populist-driven ideas about education policy. And right now, it looks like the populist side is winning.

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