At the same time Donald Trump’s vile presidency is unifying Democratic resistance to his policies on civil rights, healthcare, and immigration, his views on education policy, and those of his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, are dividing Democrats.
Evidence of this growing divide is rapidly accumulating, and Democrats in denial of it are only going to make the party’s already marginalized status worse.
Division Is Everywhere
At last week’s Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressives, where so many popular movements have vaulted into prominence, protestors stormed the stage to shout down a Democratic candidate who openly embraces positions DeVos promotes, including privately operated charter schools and school vouchers that allow parents to enroll their children in private schools at taxpayer expense.
In New York, Politico reports, Shavar Jeffries, a prominent black supporter of charter schools and leader of Democrats for Education Reform, recently resigned from the board of Success Academy, a New York City charter school chain whose CEO Eva Moskowitz, also a Democrat, has been openly supportive of DeVos and was one of Trump’s early picks for education secretary. The “collision course” the reporter sees for Jeffries and Moskowitz is going to repeat among any Democrats who diverge on DeVos and her policies.
A dust-up over racist comments made recently by hedge fund investor Daniel Loeb, who also sits on the board of Success Academy, is getting swept into the education space. Loeb, who has donated heavily to numerous political candidates, including Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been a fervent supporter of charter schools. But his advocacy pushed him toward extremism then he likened Democratic State Senator Andrea Stewart-Couisns, who is black, to the KKK.
Stewart-Cousins, who recently opposed legislation to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state and calls for more accountability from these schools, is now being derided as an “anti-charter Democrat” by charter advocates and deserving of such criticism. Prominent African-American Democrats in the state, on the other hand, have rallied to her support.
“Charter schools … are going to create new divisions for Democrats in primaries for 2018,” writes Graham Vyse for The New Republic. Vyse cites examples from a Politico report showing efforts to link Trump and DeVos to Democratic candidates who support charters and vouchers.
“This rift within the party over education policy is very real,” Vyse argues, “and has been hiding in plain sight for years. It just took DeVos to bring it out into the open.”
Look At The Data
Evidence of this growing divide is not merely anecdotal.
An annual survey published by the right-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University revealed plummeting popular opinion for charter schools, which many Democrats favor. As EdSource reports, favorability for charter school expansions fell from 51 percent to just 39 percent, a 12-point decline in one year.
Although support for charters fell among both Democrats and Republicans, the decline among Democrats now means opponents of charters in the party outnumber supporters, 40 percent to 34 percent.
The growing opposition to charters in the Democratic party may be due to the “polarizing impact” of Trump, notes EdSource. The survey found more Republicans agree with him and more Democrats disagree with him on key education issues. “When half of the respondents were told the president’s positions, between 7 and 14 percent more Democrats disagreed with Trump, depending on the issue, while roughly the same percentage of additional Republicans aligned their views with his.”
What Democrats Should Do
In the face of such shifting opinion on education policy, how should Democrats respond?
First, calls to take “partisanship” out of education policy debates should be cast aside. Democrats who say they can’t agree with this President’s politics need to feel uncomfortable when they find themselves advocating for education policies that are very much in line with what Trump and DeVos want.
The bipartisan consensus on education policy that reigned during the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama was always really a collusion of big-moneyed interests and well-meaning, but ill-informed politicians, to wrestle control of a $600 billion sector of the economy away from teachers, parents, and democratic governance.
Strip away the civil rights language that liberals used to sell charter schools and vouchers to America, and you end up with policies that look exactly like what Trump supports: unregulated, “free market” mayhem that opens vulnerable communities to exploitation by powerful interests.
Telling public school advocates in the Democratic party to turn the heat down is also be a big mistake.
As my colleague Robert Borosage writes, movements are now driving the Democratic party debate and not politicians. Social media rather than party manifestos are propelling change, whether we like it or not.
In such a contentious space, “Democrats need a major debate about values and policy,” Borosage argues, not more “hand-wringing” about the need to unify.
Trump’s tanking popularity proves he can be defeated even if Democrats aren’t in agreement on what they want.
Further, the debate Democrats need should take place in the public forum rather in the revolving door between previous presidential administrations and a handful of think tanks, non-profits, and philanthropic organizations.
For years, Democrats have been getting bad advice from that crowd, and the party needs guidance from elsewhere.
Democrats should have faith that out of this tumultuous debate a new consensus will emerge, but that consensus will be an improvement over the top-down one it’s replacing only if it truly comes from the bottom up.