Is Tim Kaine A Sign Democrats Are Leaving The ‘Education Reform Camp?’

Jeff Bryant

An education “reform” establishment that has enjoyed the complete support of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush may be getting nervous.

The policy outline for K-12 education coming from the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign remains vague, but supporters of Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders have substantially altered how public education is framed in the Democratic Party platform, and Clinton has become more strident in her attacks on “for-profit” charter schools and vouchers that allow parents to transfer their children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

At this week’s Democratic Party National Convention in Philadelphia, experienced reporters from Education Week notice that although Clinton generally pledges “to pick up the policy baton from President Barack Obama … it’s tough to say how true that will be when it comes to K-12 education.”

A Politico education journalist at the DNC reports that Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, a policy group that has gotten used to getting its way in the Obama administration, said, “There was ‘anxiety’ within the education reform movement over the future of [the movement’s] priorities.”

When DFER threw an event at the convention, the EdWeek reporters note the mood was more about “soul searching” than celebrating.

Clinton’s picking Virginia Senator Tim Kaine for her vice presidential running mate is not apt to ease the “anxiety” or “soul searching” reformers feel.

“To be sure, Kaine is not part of the so-called education reform camp,” writes education reporter Lauren Camera for U.S. News and World Report.

Camera correctly tags New Jersey Senator Cory Booker as someone who would have been more favorable to big supporters of the high-stakes testing and charter school expansions that come with reform orthodoxy. But Kaine’s education record diverges sharply from that.

As a mayor, a governor and a U.S. senator, Kaine has a “hefty education resume,” as Camera writes, which includes support for expanding access to high-quality early learning programs for children from birth to age 5 and increasing access to career and technical education programs and apprenticeships.

Education writers for Politico note Kaine’s work to provide federal student loans for some career education programs, his advocacy for LGBT students’ rights, and his support for improving emergency responses on college campuses and mental health in Virginia following the death of 32 people by gun violence at Virginia Tech in 2007.

But in reviewing Kaine’s education policy chops, what’s in his record may not be as important as what isn’t: the current education establishment’s policy checklist of standardization, high-stakes testing, allowing charter schools to sort students by income and ability, and keeping teachers under the authoritative thumb of test-based evaluations – there’s none of that.

In what may be the most revealing commentary about his education perspectives, an op-ed he wrote for his hometown Richmond paper, Kaine lays out an education agenda of increased personalization, relief from the testing mandates, richer and more varied curriculum, and support and autonomy for experienced teachers. (Hat tip: Bertis Downs.)

Education journalists covering Kaine also never fail to include mention of his wife Anne Holton, who serves as Virginia’s secretary of education. As education journalists at The Washington Post explain, Holton “has worked to reform a standardized testing regime that had been criticized as unnecessarily time-consuming and onerous.”

Holton, the reporters write, has blamed high stakes testing for intensifying the stubborn achievement gap in her state, rather than remedying it as fans of the reform approach say it will.

The article also notes Holton “has opposed the expansion of charter schools and other school-choice measures, and she has pushed for greater investments in public education, including teacher pay raises.”

None of this is what education reformers want to hear.

Kaine and Holton also deserve to be praised for “walking the walk” of progressive schooling by enrolling all their children in the public school system and sending them to racially integrated schools that were majority non-white.

Of course, there’s no guarantee Kaine will influence the education policy direction of a Clinton administration. Nor is this to say Kaine is perfect on education or even the most progressive of possible vice presidential candidates Clinton could have picked.

For instance, Kaine has expressed reluctance to support free universal public higher education, which has become a cornerstone in the populist agenda advocated by Bernie Sanders and his supporters. And as governor, Kaine presided over a period when Virginia made significant cuts to education funding; although, to be fair, this occurred in response to one of the nation’s worst economic calamities in its history.

Also, liberal groups have criticized Kaine for his support of big banks, Wall Street deregulation, and “free trade” – although, he flipped his position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal shortly after becoming the vice presidential nominee.

But none of these factors should veer from the narrative of what is rapidly happening to education policy in the Democratic Party.

As my colleague Dave Johnson explains in his analysis of Tim Kain’s change of heart on TPP, “Kaine had to change his position” (emphasis mine) on TPP after he was chosen because that’s more reflective of where the Democratic party is going rather than where it’s been.

“This is what happens when people organize and make their voices heard,” Johnson writes. “This is the power of the progressive movement. This is the new Democratic Party.”

The years progressives have put into organizing, voicing opposition to current education policies, and calling for new directions in education are likely having an effect on “this new Democratic Party” too. No wonder people who’ve enjoyed their cushy places at the top are nervous.

Get updates in your inbox

Comments