How Mike Pence’s Extremism May Divide Democrats On Education Policy

Jeff Bryant

Soon after the announcement that Indiana Governor Mike Pence would be the vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party, word came from Democrats that he was an extremist – and not just your garden-variety extremist.

“The ‘most extreme’ vice presidential pick in a generation,” an article in USA Today quotes a statement from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Podesta elaborates, according to the reporter, calling Pence, “an early supporter of the Tea Party” and someone who “‘personally spearheaded’ a religious liberty bill that ‘legalized discrimination’ against gays and lesbians (which he later revised); and he was a leader in the effort to defund Planned Parenthood as a member of the U.S. House.”

“Mike Pence is even worse than you think,” warns a report from left-leaning news outlet Salon, arguing he has “the most virulently anti-gay records of any government official” and has “also built his career on restricting abortion rights.”

According to an article in Alternet, Pence is a favorite of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who fund extreme right-wing organizations such Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that writes extremist right-wing laws that have been enacted in many states.

Another opinion piece in The Washington Post criticizes Pence for “mocking” working moms.

As for Clinton herself, according to Politico, because the announcement of Pence’s candidacy coincided with her appearance at the annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers, she focused some of her criticism of Pence on his record on education issues. In her address, Clinton “told thousands of cheering teachers union members that Pence is ‘one of the most hostile politicians in America when it comes to public education.’”

Clinton accused Pence of cutting “millions from higher education while he was ‘giving huge cuts to corporations’ … Clinton also said Pence ‘turned away millions of federal dollars that could’ve expanded access to preschool for low-income children.’”

A more dispassionate look at Pence’s education record by Chalkbeat Indiana reveals he “pushed for career and technical education, school choice, and changes to standards and tests.” Despite Clinton’s claim that Pence turned away “millions” in federal money for preschool education, which is true, Pence also, according to the Chakbeat reporter, pushed “to create a small preschool pilot program” that got “Indiana off the list of just 10 U.S. states that spent no direct state funds to help poor children attend preschool.”

What’s also on Pence’s list of education policy accomplishments are a repeal of the state’s adoption of Common Core standards pushed by the Obama administration, a prolonged battle with the state superintendent over control of education policy, and lots and lots of “school choice” legislation, including more funding for privately operated charter schools and expansions of the state’s voucher program that allows parents to transfer their students to private schools at taxpayer expense.

In other words, what Pence adopted as his education policies resemble a hodgepodge of what is commonly referred to as “education reform.”

Indeed, organizations that espouse the reform agenda give Pence’s education record rave reviews.

“Mike Pence Is the Veep Education Reformers Need,” declares the Center for Education Reform. CER leader Jeanne Allen declares in her statement, “Mike Pence is a true pioneer of educational opportunity.”

Pro-reform American Federation for Children gushes, “Governor Pence is a longtime champion for educational choice, believing that every child, regardless of family income or ZIP code, deserves access to a quality education.”

At Forbes, reform cheerleader Maureen Sullivan’s list of “seven things” to know about Pence’s education stance reads like a checklist from the reform movement, including charter schools, standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, vouchers, and curriculum geared toward workforce preparation.

So, although Pence has strayed from reform orthodoxy at times – voting against the No Child Left Behind law passed under President Georg W. Bush and steering his state out of the Common Core (which he initially embraced) – he is generally recognized as an education reform leader, making him, in fact, aligned with many Democrats who’d never want to be caught dead supporting what Pence generally espouses.

For decades, both Democrats and Republicans have dined at the salad bar of education reform, with Democrats taking a heaping helping of charter schools but light on the vouchers please, and Republicans insisting on standardization but hold the Common Core now that we’ve gotten a taste of it.

Democrats eagerly sat alongside Republicans at the same education policy table in Indiana, too. Most of the education policies Pence supported as governor have been a continuation of policies created by fellow Republicans – his predecessor Mitch Daniels and state superintendent Tony Bennett, who suffered a humiliating defeat during Pence’s tenure. But those policies often drew the praise of former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In a visit to the state in 2011, Duncan and Bennett commended each other for their “efforts to overhaul education,” according to a local reporter.

In another visit to the sate a year later, Duncan “complimented,” according to a local news source, Bennett and Indiana’s leadership on the state’s expansion of charter schools and state takeovers of local schools – another popular item in the reform salad bar.

A New York Times article from 2013 lumps Duncan and Daniels, along with former Michigan Governor John Engler, together in the education policy arena, writing, “They all sympathize with many of the efforts of the so-called education reform movement.”

Outside of the Obama administration, Indiana education leadership has drawn strong support from StudentsFirst, the education reform advocacy group created and formerly led by ex-Chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools and avowed Democrat Michelle Rhee.

The leader of StudentsFirst Indiana state chapter has been “a key adviser to Governor Mike Pence,” according to a statement from the organization. Now that StudentsFirst has merged with reform advocacy group 50CAN, which is also led by avowed Democrats, no doubt that organization’s agenda will continue in the Hoosier State.

The organization Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) hail Pence’s education priorities and claim the influence of prominent Democrats, including President Obama, have had a lot to do with them.

So why have so many Democrats shared the education agenda of an extremist the party now generally abhors?

When education journalist and Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss recently asked education historian Diane Ravitch what she would most want to tell President Obama should they ever have a face-to-face meeting, Ravitch replied she would like to tell him, “I will never understand why you decided to align your education policy with that of George W. Bush.”

The fact that Democrats have been supporting an education agenda that was to a great extent conceived in conservative Republican policy shops has been well known among careful observers and thoroughly documented by Ravitch in her books, “The Death and Life of the Great American School,” and “Reign of Error.”

“The irony today,” Ravitch explains in her interview, “is that many of the leading figures in the Democratic Party support some of the same education policies as the right-wing extremists in ALEC.”

In an email to me, Ravitch elaborates on more recent collusions between Democrats and Republicans on education policy. “President Obama pulled the rug out [from under public education supporters] by aligning with DFER,” she writes. “DFER money managers were big supporters of his. He was the inaugural speaker when they first met in [New York City]. After the election, they gave Obama a list of people they wanted in the Education Department. Top on it was Arne Duncan.”

As Dana Goldstein documented for The Nation in 2009, Obama made a decision at the outset of his presidency to listen “to only one side of” the debate on education policy in the Democratic Party. On the winning side were DFER and its wealthy backers from Wall Street who, according to Goldstein, conducted a “highly coordinated media campaign to call into question the work of Obama education adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, once considered a top contender for the job of education secretary.”

After “DFER’s anti-Darling-Hammond talking points,” got prominent attention in major media outlets, Goldstein explains, “Less than two weeks later, Obama appointed DFER’s choice to the Education Department post, Chicago schools CEO Duncan.”

By the time Obama and Duncan rolled out Race to the Top and other education initiatives that directed the course of education policy across the nation, it had “become clear,” Goldstein writes, “that DFER’s idea of education reform is the one driving the Obama administration.”

But the policy ideas never had roots in populist soil. As Goldstein explains, “Lacking a membership base, [education reform’s] lobbying arm is essentially top-down, financed by New York hedge-funders, supported by research conducted at Beltway think tanks, and represented on the ground by a handful of state and local politicians scattered across the country.”

So for the past eight years, the Democratic Party’s education agenda has chiefly been based on an idea conceived in right-wing policy shops then pushed into the party’s most powerful circles by a very small but wealthy group of individuals with the ability to push the right levers.

Based on this understanding, it’s not a surprise that extremists such as Mike Pence have been eager to adopt much of this agenda.

But in calling out Pence as an extremist, is Hillary Clinton signaling there may be “shifts in her party’s education agenda,” as American Prospect’s education journalist Rachel Cohen suggests?

An op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, a consistent megaphone for education reform, seems to think so. Calling Clinton’s criticism “an opening,” the author seems to relish a debate on whether policies from an extremist like Pence are best for “low- and middle-income families.”

Public schools advocates in the Democratic Party are eager to have that debate, too.

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