Can Democrats Find the Front in the 'Education Wars'?

February 17, 2012

Conventional wisdom among the Very Serious People in Washington DC has long maintained that the severely punitive nature of current policies governing America's public schools cannot be called an "attack" on those institutions or the teachers who inhabit them.

We're told that the myriad prescriptions known as "education reform" -- which includes, among other things, restricting teachers' collective bargaining, narrowing the curriculum, enforcing high-stakes standardized testing, and rolling out "choice" programs and charter schools to compete with local schools -- are a "consensus"of what's needed to "fix" education. And anyone who opposes these measures is merely an obstructionist."

Well, now we know we can throw conventional wisdom out the window.

Welcome Back To The Edu-War

Recent pronouncements about education policy from Beltway insiders in many ways represent a return to partisan trenches similar to what characterizes the divide on other significant issues of governance.

And really, that's a good thing. But what's yet to be determined is if Democrats can find their way to the frontlines of the conflict.

Republican Bulwarks Are Obvious

The position that Republicans hold in the "education wars" is completely clear. Leadership in the Republican controlled US House has rejected bipartisanshipas a goal of new legislative efforts. These conservatives aim to significantly diminish the federal government's role in education and allow states to de-fund education without penalty, drop requirements for hiring quality teachers, and redirect money meant for educating poor kids to whatever they deem to be a worthier cause.

Republican presidential candidates, whether active or "suspended," have also expressed strong antipathy for the federal government's role in education, with some going so far as to call for abolishing the US Department of Education.

And Republican governors have led the charge in many states to enact drastic cuts to education and re-direct millions of dollars meant for schools to private entities such as consulting groups, charter and private schools, online learning ventures, and for-profit education management organizations.

Does Obama's Budget Signal A Battle Plan?

Whereas the Republican battle line is clearly marked and fortified, the Democratic party's position so far resembles a skirmish line at best.

Some positive reinforcements arrived this week in the form of President Obama's new budget which gave education a "marquee spot" in the federal government's new outlays for 2013.

Among the highlights reported by Education Week (link provided above):

    • $30 billion to prevent teacher layoffs, including $5 billion dedicated to a competition aimed at bolstering teacher-quality initiatives.
    • $30 billion to revamp school facilities nationwide.
    • A $300 million increase to the president’s signature Race to the Top competition.
    • $8 billion in new money for a Community College Career Fund, which would be jointly administered by the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Labor. The administration is also seeking to retool the $1.1 billion Career and Technical Education program to better align the program with current career demands.

These and other proposed outlays struck those in the mainstream media as "responsible." Better yet, many in theprogressive blogosphere hailed the budget proposal as a political statement that draws a strong contrast to conservative austerity policies that are ruining education and diminishing the future wellbeing of children.

But let's be clear. Although Obama can now be credited with hitting the "right political notes," according to Jeff Madrick of the progressive Roosevelt Institute, it by no means is adequate to the matter at hand.

David Griffth of the nonpartisan education group ASCD sobers our enthusiasm and explains why the president's proposal is really a "bleak budget request:"

The real number to focus on is the $1.72 billion (+2.5 percent) increase in discretionary spending for the Department of Education, most of which, unfortunately from the K–12 perspective, is for a new $1 billion college affordability competition (higher education's version of the Race to the Top program).
The mainstays of federal K–12 funding—Title I, IDEA, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, English Language Acquisition grants, TRIO, Gear Up, and career and technical education—are all funded at last year's levels.
Even worse, the FY13 request again proposes to consolidate separate grant programs for Teaching American History, economic education, Arts in Education, and civics into a single pot for which the various subject disciplines would compete against one another.

But if the president is at least now getting the politics right, why do so many other Democrats continue to get it so wrong?

Most Democrats Still AWOL

According to a report from The Hill, many "red state Democrats" in the House and the Senate are expressing disappointment that the president's budget has "fallen short of what was necessary to rein in federal debt."

Apparently these politicians were driven comatose by the now-mostly-forgotten media frenzy about the federal deficit and slept through the Occupy movement that made such a powerful course-correction to the national dialog. And now they've awoken to the new imperatives of the 99% and are at a loss as to say anything other than old talking points about the need for austerity.

More specific to education policy, Obama's new-found populist message is also being blunted by his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In an address given at Harvard Graduate School of Education just prior to the unveiling of the budget, Duncan proclaimed that "too many" who disagree with his education policies are "fighting the wrong battles." Then he proceeded to demonstrate why he himself is the one who is caught-up in the rear guard.

For instance, Duncan accused those who are against the punitive use of high-stakes standardized tests for firing teachers and closing schools of wanting to "abandon the use of standardized testing" -- a position that almost no one engaged in the debate holds.

Similarly, he spent much of the speech emphasizing that there are examples of teachers and schools that "can dramatically narrow achievement and attainment gaps" -- again, a point that virtually no one would contest.

As he dismissed his detractors for "defending the status quo" that "hurts children," he completely neglected to identify the real perpetrators of harm to children and what form it may be taking. For instance, he praised "courageous state leaders" for falling in line with policies that reward them with federal grant money even while it is many of these very same state leaders who have enacted huge cuts to public education that really do "hurt children."

Like many Democrats connected to education policy, Duncan sees the "education battles" being fought generally inside the Beltway, where empty phrases like "tough-minded collaboration" are conveyed as if they have real and profound meaning.

The real frontlines in the education war are elsewhere. And it is Duncan's critics -- who he derides for "maintaining ideological purity and making false choices" -- who can show him the way there.

Desperate Times In Cleveland

Writing in her blogspot at Education Week, Diane Ravitch takes us to a place where the real education wars are being fought: Cleveland, Ohio.

Amidst a landscape of "blocks of boarded-up apartment houses and sealed homes, as well as empty lots where vacant houses had been demolished," Ravitch described how political leaders -- from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson to Governor John Kasich -- have turned a blind eye to the ravages of poverty while ramping up charter school initiatives and voucher programs that divert public funds from schools.

Instead of "thinking about those children," Ravitch explains, political leaders in Ohio are focusing mostly on "how to cut costs" and siphon money away from public schools and teachers. She notes:

The average public school teacher in Cleveland is paid about $66,000, while the average charter school teacher in that city receives about $33,000 a year. That's a big cost saving for the city and state. Most charters are non-union, and teachers have no job protections or employment rights. It appears that charters have a business plan in which they keep costs low by teacher turnover, low levels of experience, and low salaries.

At the same time state and civic leaders in Ohio slash teacher wages, they

keep hiring private firms to run schools. The private firms will fire those expensive teachers who earn a living wage and hire newcomers willing to work long hours for $30,000 a year. Some of the private firms will replace teachers with virtual academies, so those expensive buildings can be shuttered while children sit at a computer, with one teacher monitoring 50-100 or more screens. The "teachers" may not be certified, may be hourly workers with no benefits, may turn over with frequency. All that cuts costs, too.

What is the benefit of all this cost-cutting, charter schools, and privatization to students? Not much.

As in other states, charters in Ohio get no better academic results on average than regular public schools. There are more charters at the bottom in the state's academic rating ("academic emergency" or "academic watch"), but not much difference in the middle or at the top. A study in 2009 by CREDO of Stanford found that "new charter school students have an initial loss of learning in both reading and math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. In subsequent years, charter school students receive no significant benefit in reading from charter school attendance compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. However, charter school students continue significant losses of learning in math after the first year of attendance."

Time To Man The Ramparts

To insist that Democratic leaders at the national level can't really do anything about the travesties rolling out in Ohio and other states is to deny the reality that federal education policies have already had a huge influence on how Ohio and other states have governed schools.

Of course, there's little prospect that President Obama's budget will get passed. But at least the message is heading in the right direction toward the battle lines.

America's schools don't have an accountability problem. They have a leadership problem. Using federal funds and leverage to change the bad behavior of local and state leaders is a cause worth fighting for. And those opposed to it are the people Democrats need to fight against.

That's what a Democrat who really is "tough-minded" should say.

[Author disclosure: ASCD is a client of mine.]

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National...