Arne Duncan just doesn't get it: How the media and phony reformers hurt your kids

Defenders of charter schools and Common Core cast critics as ignorant skeptics. It could cost Democrats elections

Published March 13, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
(AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

This story has been corrected to attribute a quotation to the New York Times, and not to Whiteboard

For years, education policy in the United States has been driven by a Washington consensus that found comfort in believing public schools are effectively broken and only a "reform" agenda of austerity mixed with the stern hand of managerial oversight from the Beltway and state capitals could save them.

This made it possible for Democratic candidates to mostly "copy" Republicans on education policy and crow about how much "everyone is for the kids" – especially the poor ones in "failed" schools.

Writing in Jacobin, Micah Uetricht observed that when the subject is education policy, “Democrats have swallowed the Right’s free market orthodoxy whole,” including the whole "reform" menu of "high-stakes standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, school closures, privatization and union-busting through charter school expansion."

Even Democratic candidates and office-holders calling themselves “progressives” have been all "bipartisan" and move-to-the-middle-ish on education while they chose to fight tooth-and-nail with conservative Republicans on other issues – like healthcare, the deficit, Social Security and the economy – that drew bigger numbers to the polls.

For sure, education has never been an issue that's gotten much attention in the media. So when the subject of the economy and jobs would come up, politicians and policymakers on all sides could repeat bromides like "we need to educate our way to a better economy" and no one – at least among the pundit class – would give this nonsense the least bit of scrutiny. (Japan had one of the most educated workforces in the world during all those years the country's economy was in the toilet. In the U.S., college attendance has increased dramatically while personal income has stagnated for years.)

This lack of attention gave politicians a break, so other than espousing conventional pap about how much they "respected teachers" and wanted to "make sure every kid has a shot," what they could mostly do is neglect education while lobbyists and think tanks funded by big business and private foundations continued to press an agenda for more and more standardization and harsh punishments for "failure."

But it's beginning to look like 2014 may be an election year when some politicians pay for that neglect. How many will be Democrats?

According to the latest midterm poll, "Republicans have a slight edge over Democrats going into this year's midterm elections," and Democratic candidates may need to take their campaigns to new ground to find the votes they need to win.

An Education Election?

It's hard, for sure, to see education rising above the economy, Obamacare and immigration. And polling data on the public's motivation to vote based on education issues is scarce – most surveys don't even bother to ask about voter interest in the topic.

Nevertheless, one of the few surveys of voter interest in education, conducted by the College Board in 2012, found that voters believed education was a “top-tier issue” in that year’s election. This held true for Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

Reporting from Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa contends that a number of education topics will most likely get time in the spotlight and on the stump in election 2014. He mentions "the Common Core State Standards, school choice, collective bargaining, and early education," only one of which – early education programs – seems a sure deal to pitch to voters.

Ujifusa notes that the last midterm elections, in 2010, gave Republicans dominance in most state governments nationwide and lots of leeway to move aggressively on a lot of education policies, including "school accountability, teacher evaluation, and school employment" – all hallmarks of the education reform agenda. So if Democratic candidates have a prayer of taking these seats back, don't they have to take these issues on?

In an anonymous survey of a "small group of key education influentials," Whiteboard Advisors, a "policy-oriented consulting practice," found that these "influentials" – mostly Beltway operatives with some top-level state leadership – believe education will be an important issue in a number of gubernatorial races, most importantly in Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Georgia.

Whiteboard's email newsletter quoted from a New York Times story which observed that for education policy, "the differences between the parties are not always so stark," with very few if any Democratic candidates distinguishing themselves on the issues so far.

Further, 2014 is a midterm, with state and local contests hogging the limelight – including three dozen governorships and more than 6,000 legislative seats up for grabs. So local issues, including education, will be more prominent in voters' minds.

Another factor at work is the decision by each party to rally its base. For Democrats, according to The Wall Street Journal, President Obama's decision to keep Social Security cuts – the "chained CPI" – off the table is just "the latest signal" that the White House is intent on unifying the party base ahead of the November elections. The strategy, according to The Washington Post, is "to maximize the enthusiasm of the party stalwarts who are most likely to show up at the polls."

But if Democratic candidates intend to make education reform part of their campaigns, they are likely to find the "base" for it just isn't there.

Where's the 'Base'?

In reality, politicians and policymakers from both parties have never really brought the mass of American opinion on board with the "education reform" agenda.

A plethora of surveys have found a growing disillusionment among Americans with the education policy agenda that has been in place for nearly 20 years.

When Stephanie Simon at Politico reviewed some of those surveys, she found a “mixed report card for education reforms,” with parents giving confusing signals on where they stand on reform faves, such as standardized testing, school choice and teacher accountability.

The Common Core State Standards, touted by reformers as a policy imperative, are still a "mystery" to most people, as Huffington Post education reporter Joy Resmovits noted. More recently, in places where people have become more familiar with the Common Core standards – such as New York, which was among the first states to implement them – opinion of the standards is more disenchanted than ever.

The only overriding constants? People generally like their local schools, trust their children's teachers and think public school and teachers should get more money. Wonder when a politician will back that!

Many observers, including journalists at The Wall Street Journal, have accurately surmised that the American public is currently deeply divided on education policy. But that analysis barely scratches the surface.

Go much deeper and you find that the “new liberal consensus” that Adam Serwer wrote about in Mother Jones, which propelled Obama into a second term, believes in funding the nation’s public schools but has little to no allegiance to Obama’s education reform policies.

Outside of the elite circles of the Beltway and the very rich, who continue to be the main proponents of these education policies, it is getting harder and harder to discern who exactly is the constituency being served by the reform agenda.

Most Americans do not see any evidence that punitive measures aimed at their local schools are in any way beneficial to their children and grandchildren. In fact, there’s some reasonable doubt whether the president himself understands it.

A Slowly Building Backlash

Voter disenchantment with education reform has indeed influenced many recent elections and will likely influence many more.

Building slowly over the past few years, a backlash to top-down education mandates has now proven to wield significant electoral force.

The agenda of standardization, test-driven outcomes and alternatives to traditional public schools began to take a beating at the ballot box way back in 2012 when Obama was reelected.

This opposition was particularly potent in Indiana, where the state’s voters, in rejecting Obama, rejected his education policy as well, even though to do so meant to cross the party line to vote for a Democratic candidate. The Republican was Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett, who had been on the frontline of implementing Obama’s Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards policies.

In Idaho, Republicans again crossed party lines to join teachers unions and public school advocates to vote down propositions that favored “reform” darlings such as online courses for high school graduates, teacher merit pay, eliminating teacher tenure and making test scores the measure of teacher quality. A state ballot measure in South Dakota that would have reduced teacher job security and given bonuses to teachers based on student test scores also went down in flames.

Then, in the fall of 2013, electoral victories for Bill de Blasio in the New York City mayoral race and for three “outsiders” in a school board race in Bridgeport, Conn., provided clear rebukes to out-of-touch leadership of education policy.

Declaring de Blasio’s victory a “full speed reverse on education reforms,” Politico’s Stephanie Simon wrote, “Exit polls showed that education was a key issue for voters, and de Blasio made it a central plank of his campaign.” Like the de Blasio victory, the triumph of the three non-establishment candidates in the Bridgeport Democratic primary was, according to one local blogger, “really a referendum on the education reform efforts” of the political establishment.

A Populist Agenda Instead

Democratic candidates would be wise to heed these warnings and move away from the reform platform.

Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, for one, offers a model. As Education Week's Ujifusa writes, in the article linked above, Davis has released a plan for improving education that gives full-throated support to "public schools," rather than voucher programs and other competitive forms of school. Instead of more austerity, she advocates for expanding college enrollments and guaranteeing top-performing high school students acceptance to college and a Texas teaching job. Instead of cutting teacher pay and bringing in unqualified Teach for America temp-workers, she proposes a college loan-repayment program for teachers and pledges to bring Texas teacher pay in line with the rest of the country. (The NEA ranked Texas 30th in the nation in average public school teacher salaries.)

These policies are in line with, as a recent Alternet article cross-posted here at Salon pointed out, "a wave of 'populism'" sweeping the country. "Inequality and the minimum wage are suddenly front-burner political issues," the authors contend. "Cities like New York and Boston have just elected progressive mayors … Even the atmosphere within the D.C. Beltway is subtly altering."

A wave of populism in education policy has recently produced a number of new policy statements providing Democratic candidates a positive pathway forward, including the report "For Each and Every Child" from the U.S. Equity Commission, the "Education Declaration to Rebuild America" endorsed by leading voices for progressive education, and the "Principles That Unite Us" coming from a coalition of labor organizations and grassroots activists.

This populist wave for education is diametrically opposed to the status quo education policies of the past 20 years. As Huffington Post's Resmovits reported in another article, one of the education reform movement's most prominent leaders, Louisiana State School Superintendent John White, recently complained, "An aggressive form of populism has asserted itself in the rhetoric of our day … I see it in a tone that is skeptical of reformers in the same populist way our country today is skeptical of authority generally."

That reform ideologues have a problem with anyone "skeptical" of "authority" is no surprise. But for any Democratic candidate to embrace that attitude would be a shame.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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