The Democratic Party rolled out "A Better Deal" this week, aimed at winning back working-class voters. The populist pitch takes aim at corporate power, a refreshing change for a party too often enthralled to Wall Street. But A Better Deal is virtually silent on the topic of public education — and that’s a major missed opportunity. With the Trump/DeVos agenda of budget cuts and school privatization deeply unpopular even among the president’s supporters, now is an ideal time for Democrats to speak up on behalf of public schools.
Here are five reasons why.
1. Trump is vulnerable on education
Since President Trump took office and brought on board Betsy DeVos as his education secretary, the Republican plan for public schools has been to severely cut their funding and redirect taxpayer dollars from local public schools to "options" such as charter schools and vouchers to pay for private schools.
Voters by and large reject this. According to a recent survey by Hart Research, voters overwhelmingly oppose cutting education spending. Nearly half, 48 percent, of Trump's supporters don't want to see education funding cut.
Voters also overwhelmingly don’t want to see money taken away from public schools and given to charter schools and private school. Only 23 percent of Trump voters want to prioritize funding "school choice" over funding the public system.
2. Betsy DeVos is a lightning rod for popular dissent
DeVos, the first Cabinet member in history who had to have a vice president break a tie vote for confirmation, has motivated an array of progressive groupsto engage in the unprecedented outpouring of opposition to her. Similarly, civil rights organizations, which often differ with public education activists on charter schools and school vouchers, strongly oppose DeVos. She is Trump's least popular Cabinet member, and she continues to inspire boisterous protests wherever she goes.
Her support for "school choice," a subject Democrats have sparred over for years, has turned that policy option "toxic," writes Graham Vyse for the "New Republic." Vyse quotes my colleague at The Progressive, Julian Vazquez Heilig, who explains, “There’s really an awakening in communities that school choice isn’t as promised — that when charter schools and private schools are able to make decisions about kids without any recourse for families, communities are discovering that they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”
Democrats can't afford to be on the wrong side of that awakening, so nothing but vehement opposition to DeVos is advisable.
3. Support for education unites labor and civil rights
A lot of conversation about how to "fix" the Democratic Party has been about the supposed divide over whether the party should focus on relieving the pain of the working class or whether the future of the party is catering to a rising electorate of low-income and non-white voters who've grown impatient with government inattention to their needs.
The reality is success for the Democratic Party relies on bringing labor and civil rights advocates together. One place where those factions are uniting is in the opposition to charter schools and other forms of public school privatization.
Recently the nation's largest labor union, the National Education Association, released a statement opposing the expansion of more school choice. Joining in their opposition is the national NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, that shortly followed the NEA statement with a report calling for tighter restrictions on charter schools.
4. An economics agenda can't succeed without an education agenda
Calls for "better jobs" and a "21st-century economy" ring hollow without plans for bolstering our public education system.
Polling as far back as 2014 showed most voters disapproved of the way President Obama was addressing jobs and the economy, but messages that took a strong stance for "education and public schools" motivated voters. Clearly that advice wasn't followed, and Democrats took a beating and continue to.
Democratic candidates who call for better jobs on one hand, and then, on the other hand, remain silent on support for public education will continue to alienate voters.
5. Democrats need a clean break from the Party's education past
Many prominent Democrats, including former presidents Clinton and Obama, have been enthusiastic supporters of an education policy agenda bankrolled by Wall St. hedgefund money, Silicon Valley, and private foundations tied to corporate wealth. That agenda of standardized testing, harsh accountability measures, and market-based competition with charter schools and vouchers has influenced Democrats to sound just like Republicans on education.
"The resistance to DeVos obscured an inconvenient truth," Diane Ravitch writes for the New Republic. "Democrats have been promoting a conservative 'school reform' agenda for the past three decades."
"If there’s ever a moment for them to reclaim their mantle as the party of public education, it’s now," Ravitch continues. "There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it."
Let's hope A Better Deal does.