When Democrats win big like they did in last week’s elections, Republicans understandably get nervous. But there’s another political faction that has something to fret about: folks who’ve aligned themselves with what’s come to be called “education reform”: the embrace of school privatization, standardized testing and tough-on-teacher measures. Although the reform campaign has long been marketed as a bipartisan cause, it’s increasingly apparent that the better Democrats do at the polls, the worse the education reform agenda does.
Mile High Warning
Results from the Denver, Colorado school board contest could be especially worrying for Democrats who’ve drunk the corporate education reform Kool-Aid. In the Mile High City, the dominant power structure lost in a contest it’s used to winning.
As I reported last year, Denver has become the darling of the education policy establishment. Its “portfolio model” of urban school governance relies heavily on charter schools, standardized testing, and undermining collective bargaining agreements teachers’ unions have negotiated with the district.
The Denver approach is a product of bipartisanship, conceived by business-minded organizations connected to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, financed by wealthy private foundations and philanthropists like the Walton Family Foundation, and implemented by center-left politicians like Democratic Colorado Senator Michael Bennet who once led the Denver school district. Its biggest cheerleader currently is David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute, the Clinton-era “ideas shop” that has been pushing the privatization of public services for more than 30 years.
Denver’s bipartisan powerbrokers have used huge infusions of political donations coming from outside the community to engineer a controlling majority on the city’s school board. But this well-oiled political machine hit a pothole in November. Of the four races up for contention, two went to the establishment and two went to newcomers who want to take Denver schools in a totally different direction.
When Big Money Doesn’t Dictate
Of the two upset candidates, Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson, Olson is the far bigger surprise. Olson’s victory was “really extraordinary,” writes former Denver school board member Jeannie Kaplan on her personal blog. “Big money won in 3 out of 4 contests,” she says, referring to both contributions to Bacon from the teachers’ unions and money from outside pressure groups such as Democrats for Education Reform that went to two candidates who lost. “They didn’t win in all four for the first time in several election cycles in Denver,” she observes.
While both candidates were endorsed by the local teachers’ union, Bacon was the only one to receive much in the way of financial backing from the union. According to a local campaign watchdog, Bacon received nearly $139,000 from the union-backed PAC, Brighter Futures for Denver—far and away the most of any other candidate. Olson, on the other hand, had late in the race shown no funding from the union and only a small donation from Our Denver Our Schools, a grassroots progressive group in the district.
In other words, Olson was outspent by her opponent by nearly five to one. She won anyway.
An eight-year veteran of the Denver school board, Jeannie Kaplan has lived in Denver for over 40 years and raised children in the local public schools. She first ran for school board in 2005 in an open seat contest and won but was term-limited out in 2013. She is co-founder of Our Denver Our Schools.
“What was different this time?” I asked her during a phone call.
“There was an enormous groundswell of volunteers” in support of Olson, she explained, “the highest levels I’ve ever seen.”
What also was different was the level of disenchantment among voters with what Kaplan called “the Bennet machine,” referring to the Democratic senator and ex-superintendent. After years of grassroots effort by the opposition to this machine, “people are paying more attention,” she believes, “and they’re better informed.”
Denver school teacher Hayley Breden agrees. Breden teaches high school social studies and is a member of the Caucus of Today’s Teachers, a progressive, social-justice-minded faction within the local teacher’s union and another group that supported Olson.
“People were shocked to learn the Denver school board didn’t have a sitting member who was a teacher,” Breden told me in a phone conversation. Olson is a 33-year veteran teacher.
There’s also a “growing resentment” among voters over the current board’s policies, Breden believes. Parents are increasingly frustrated with the district’s “school choice” enrollment process that often leaves parent bereft of the choice of enrolling their children in schools that are a walkable distance from home. Parents also often don’t agree with how the district’s school rating system, that relies mostly on test scores, labels their schools. And they’re increasingly resentful when the district co-locates a charter school in their children’s school building without any input from parents and teachers in the school. Breden works in one of only three high schools in the district that does not have a charter co-located in the same building.
To Breden and others in her grassroots movement, Denver’s school governance increasingly looks like an effort by those who are “out to destroy public schools.”
She sees the results of the Denver board election as a sign of people becoming more engaged in local politics. “Maybe even the beginning of the pendulum swing,” says Kaplan.
A Raging Debate
Denver is far from the only place where a raging debate over the future of public education is playing out. As Education Week reports in its post-election analysis, in states where Democrats prevailed—including New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington—”long-simmering” battles over charter schools, funding, and testing will likely heat up as a result.
The reporter notes, “political maneuvers used by education policy advocates” in those contests, particularly the tactics used by teachers’ unions and opponents of standardized testing and charter schools, seemed to be an effective way to “animate moderate voters.” Once animated, these voters may be more likely to press for real action.
In the Virginia governors’ contest, Democratic candidate Ralph Northam criticized education policies that had become “too reliant on test scores” and presented himself as a “fierce charter school opponent.” While Trumpism may have doomed Ed Gillespie, he also ran as the school choice candidate. Ads on Gillespie’s behalf, paid for by Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, even featured the testimony of a charter school principal.
In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy also won the governor’s race in part by pledging to pull the state’s current standardized testing contract, to increase funding for schools, and to veer sharply away from education policies advocated by outgoing Republican Governor Chris Christie who strongly championed charter schools and quarreled with the state’s teachers’ union.
In New Jersey and Washington, Democrats took full control of the state’s legislature, while the fate of Virginia’s House of Delegates awaits recounts.
So in all these states, where charter schools and education funding have been near-constant battles, Democrats will increasingly have the burden of leading those battles rather than just going along for the ride.
End of the Washington Consensus?
For decades, Beltway education policy shops run by Democrats and Republicans have united in a “Washington Consensus” on common goals for public schools, including, closing schools based on results of standardized tests, using students’ test scores to evaluate teachers, expanding competition from charter schools, and advocating for alternative pathways to the teaching profession such as Teach for America.
For those Democrats who’ve been generally aligned with education policies promoted by Fordham and other Beltway influencers, it may be startling for them to learn that victories for their party at the ballot box could be interpreted as defeats for the very ideas they’ve long promoted. And Democrats who’ve used their minority status as an excuse for reaching “across the aisle” to Republicans on education, now face the prospect in some states of being called out for undermining a Democratic majority if they continue to collude with Republicans on education.
November’s results “should be a warning light,” declared Mike Petrilli, president of the right-leaning Fordham Institute. If the defeats the education establishment endured in this year’s election are indeed a sign of a swing, the pendulum will be a punch in the gut to school policy leaders in both parties.
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