Education Victories Democrats Can Rally Around

Jeff Bryant

Sorting through this week’s humiliating defeat by Donald Trump at the polls, Democrats are having a hard time finding any bright spots in all the darkness. But Trump’s victory was a very close one (he lost the popular vote) and may be easy to reverse in 2020 with a better campaign.

So amidst the dead ashes of defeat, where are the red-hot coals that may spark new fire in the populist rebellion that represents the party’s only hope?

Some of that promising tinder can be found in communities that voted on Tuesday against the private takeover of their public schools.

First, in Massachusetts, voters rejected a referendum called Question 2 that would have forced the expansion of charter schools in the state. Charter schools, which receive taxpayer money but are privately operated, have come to represent another example of the creeping privatization blob rapidly absorbing public infrastructure – transportation, schools, sanitation, prisons, and other essential services – into business pursuits for the wealthy.

As the New York Times reports, voters, “easily turned aside a $26 million effort to increase the number of charter schools” in the state and delivered a victory for public education, a cornerstone of American democracy.

Public school advocate Jennifer Berkshire – a colleague of mine at The Progressive and a Boston resident – points out at her that blog Question 2 was generally an effort by “rich, entitled assholes from New York” to tell Massachusetts voters what’s best for their children. Bay State folks would have none of it.

Opposition to Question 2 came from far and wide, especially from the progressive community, including political icons Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who opposed the charter expansion.

As Berkshire explains, “The coalition extended well beyond the teachers unions that funded it, growing to include members of all kinds of unions, as well as social justice and civil rights groups, who fanned out across the state every weekend. By election day, the sprawling network of mostly volunteer canvassers had made contact with more than 1.5 million voters.”

Opposition came from nearly every kind of community in the state – urban, suburban, and rural – except for the very wealthiest and whitest counties.

Reacting to the vote tally coming in against Question 2, education historian Diane Ravitch writes on her personal blog, “On a sad night for the nation, it is heartening to see that the people defended their public schools … and won.”

In Georgia, another progressive victory for public schools shone bright through the cloud of misery up-ballot.

In that state, conservatives led by Republican Governor Nathan Deal had placed a referendum on the ballot, called Amendment 1, that would install a state agency to take over the lowest performing schools in the state and hand them over to private management groups that operate charter schools. Again, money from charter school proponents, such as members of the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and dark money groups, poured into the state to pass the referendum, while teachers unions and public school advocacy groups supported a local opposition made up of labor groups, progressives, community organizers, and black clergy.

Opposition to the charter takeover agency was widespread, with six out of ten voters opposing the bill, according to an Atlanta news outlet, with no votes coming from both Republicans and Democrats. What “galvanized opposition,” according to the reporter was widespread resistance to handing” local operations to for-profit charter school companies.”

The fact that people generally want some say in where and how they can access their schools should surprise no one, but advocates for privatizing the system with charter schools keep missing the point.

In the state of Washington, the threat to public schools appeared on the ballot in the form of a race for state Supreme Court.

Charter proponents – such as Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and other major contributors to previous attempts to force charters on the state – spent at least $500,000 in an effort to unseat current judges who upheld lower court decisions ruling the method for funding charters in the state unconstitutional. The court had also ruled that the state legislature was not adequately funding schools and had levied a fine of $100,000 a day against the lawmaking body

The judge who wrote the court’s charter school decision Justice Barbara Madsen was the primary target of charter advocates, notes Ravitch in another post on her blog. Madsen won reelection by 64 percent, according to a state news source, the largest margin of victory of the three incumbent candidates.

In Montana, charter school advocates had targeted Democratic Governor Steve Bullock for defeat. Bullock had the temerity to express, according to a state-based news outlet, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer. Anyone who says public schools have failed isn’t seeing what’s happening.”

His Republican opponent, who had become rich from selling off his high-tech startup, was the founder of a private school and an advocate for “school choice” that encourages parents to withdraw their children from public school at taxpayer expense.

Bullock received the endorsement of the Network for Public Education, a public school advocacy group Ravitch helped found, for his “strong, support for public education and democratically governed schools.”

NPE’s endorsement quotes Bullock saying although he supports schools being able to apply for “public charter” status, which would provide more “flexibility to innovate and implement new strategies,” governance of schools must remain under the purview of the locally-elected school board and the state education agency. “Public resources should be used to support our outstanding public schools,” he states.

Bullock won in a tight race, but it was a victory nevertheless, and a win for public education.

The ascendancy of public education as an important progressive cause was prevalent in state and local elections around the country – in races for state board of education in Nebraska, in school board elections in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Detroit.

Of course, support for public education did not win everywhere. There were bad outcomes in state legislative races in California and New York.

Trump has expressed his strong dislike for public schools – calling them “government schools” and a “failed monopoly” – and proposed during his campaign a $20 billion federal block grant to allow states to give vouchers to low-income students to attend whatever school they want. With Trump’s election, school choice and charter advocates now have their strongest proponent in charge of federal policy.

And among establishment Democrats, support for charter schools remains firm. In an astonishing feat of rhetoric, some of these centrist-minded Democrats who support charter schools are conflating Trump’s win with the victories for public education in Massachusetts and Georgia, saying the starkly dissimilar events were somehow equally bad for “kids.”

As these out-of-touch Democrats celebrate the defeats of progressives such as Zephyr Teachout – who campaigned for good public schools and well paying jobs but lost to a charter school advocate backed by Wall Street – we need to remind them that it was establishment Democrats who handed this election to a rightwing populist, void of decency and respect for others and mobilized by hate and division.

These sell-outs to the big money behind “reforms” such as “free trade,” “right to work,” and “school choice” are the ones who are complicit in this defeat. And it’s time progressive Democrats took their party back. Public school advocates in Massachusetts and Georgia just showed us how to do that.

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