Magazine | October 19, 2015, Issue

School Reform at a Crossroads

The Left-Right coalition is coming apart

School reform is at a crossroads. One needed only to watch Jeb Bush respond to two questions in August’s first Republican debate to see why the reform movement’s bipartisan consensus is coming apart after three decades. Asked about the Common Core, Bush said, “I’m for higher standards” but “I don’t believe the federal government should be involved in [their] creation.” A decade ago, Bush’s answer would have sounded matter-of-fact. Yet after six long years of the Obama administration’s pressuring states to adopt the Common Core — an effort for which Bush once said the president “deserve[d] credit” — his stance sounded to some like Clintonesque hair-splitting more than a statement of principle. A bit later in the debate, Bush was asked about having been a board member of Michael Bloomberg’s foundation as it donated millions to Planned Parenthood. Bush responded that he had been unaware of the donations, and that he had served “because of Mike Bloomberg’s commitment to meaningful education reform.” Bush’s education bipartisanship left him fumbling to explain his previous support for a troubling expansion of the federal role in schools and his willingness to lend his name to Bloomberg’s far-from-conservative-minded philanthropic giving.

This would be noteworthy even if it concerned only Bush, the captain of the Republican school-reform team. But it speaks to a larger issue: The Left and the Right are growing apart on education, and conservative school reformers such as Bush have grown used to accommodating their increasingly assertive liberal allies. The challenge is especially stark because conservatives constitute a tiny minority in the world of school reform. The school-reform movement has been marked by bipartisan comity in recent decades, as its adherents left and right have set aside their broader social agendas to make common cause. Conservatives embraced education as the foundation of an opportunity society and a path to eventually shrinking the welfare state. Liberals approached schooling as a way to address poverty. For the partnership to work, conservative reformers made several key concessions: They accepted a massive increase in federal authority, an expansion of race-conscious accountability systems, and a prohibition on talk of parental responsibility and the virtues of the traditional family. Liberal reformers didn’t have to bend quite so far: They mostly toned down their demands for new public programs and took care not to accuse their conservative allies of bigotry.

This left much on which the two sides could agree, including support for charter schools, state-based accountability systems, better research and data on performance, mayoral control of big-city schools, revamping teacher training in schools of education, overhauling teacher tenure, and linking teacher pay to job performance. (Conspicuously absent from the list, of course, are school vouchers and legislation to reduce the import of public-sector collective bargaining.)

The school-reform coalition featured organizations such as Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence on the right, the Education Trust and Democrats for Education Reform on the left, and Teach for America and Stand for Children in the ostensibly nonpartisan middle. These groups accepted compromises and trade-offs as the price of cooperation, while their feistier counterparts aggressively advocated vouchers (on the right) and more school spending and smaller class size (on the left).

Two things have changed the circumstances of this long-running partnership.

First, liberal school reformers have simply changed their minds on the bipartisan alliance’s terms. They have decided that it’s a mistake to separate education from the Left’s broader economic and social agenda. More and more, they suggest that a school reformer’s stances on immigration, gay marriage, transgender bathroom access, and urban policing are the measure of his seriousness. Even “nonpartisan” school-reform groups now presume that any credible reformer supports the DREAM Act, cheered the Obergefell gay-marriage decision, and regards Michael Brown and Freddie Gray as martyrs to police racism. As Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America (TFA) St. Louis and winner of TFA’s annual Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership, wrote for the TFA blog: “Education didn’t save Mike Brown. Racism killed him. . . . [Education reformers must] engage in the hard work of active anti-racism, confronting our own biases and ensuring that we dismantle deadly systems of racial dominance and oppression.”

Second, with the onset of the Obama administration, liberals decided that it was time to revisit the scope of the federal government’s role in education. In 2001, conservatives lined up behind a Republican president to pass the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act — with its giant boost in spending, its massive expansion of the federal role in state and local education systems, and its accountability regime that segments students into distinct racial groups and then holds schools responsible for the performance of each — having been assured that newfound federal authority was limited and would be constrained by the conventional norms of American governance. Treating NCLB as an open invitation to push the states farther, however, Obama began pressuring them to adopt the Common Core, federal “school-turnaround” strategies, and particular models of teacher evaluation in order to qualify for federal funds via his Race to the Top program. Later, Obama’s administration issued states waivers from NCLB — on the condition that they sign on to his education agenda.

What prompted these shifts? Liberals flocked to education reform as safe ground in the 1980s, when southern governors such as Bill Clinton and Jim Hunt sought to rehabilitate the Democratic brand while fleeing the social and political wreckage of the Great Society. As Sixties-era social programs fell out of favor, savvy advocates worked to repackage them. Programs seen as serving an unsympathetic population (e.g., unemployed and welfare-dependent adults) were now sold as providing assistance to a more pitiable one (e.g., children in the care of those adults). The paradigm of these activists was attorney Marian Wright Edelman, who rebranded her advocacy group the “Children’s Defense Fund.” As Edelman frankly explained: “The country was tired of the Sixties. When you talked about poor people or black people, you faced a shrinking audience. I got the idea that children might be a very effective way to broaden the base for change.” Education figured large in this strategy, offering fertile ground for Left–Right cooperation.

Today, in the age of Obama, the Left feels less inclined to employ such stratagems. “Real” reform, liberals now suggest, requires big increases in public spending, fastidious attention to “white privilege,” and new federal pre-K and community-college programs, among other things. The Left’s conflation of school reform, race politics, and progressive economics poses a stark choice for school-reform conservatives: They can either do their best to shuffle along, or they can choose another path.

Meanwhile, right-of-center education reformers have been loath to recognize that the Left has changed the rules. They held their tongues when erstwhile liberal allies backed teachers’ unions against Scott Walker. They’ve endorsed Obama’s lawless freelancing because they like certain of his policies, and they remained quiescent as he pushed for racial quotas in school discipline, sought to shutter a D.C. scholarship program, and sued to shut down Louisiana’s voucher program. They’ve showered praise on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — who has dismissed Common Core critics as an uninformed “fringe” and conservative concerns about federal pre-K funding as “economically foolish,” “morally indefensible,” and tantamount to “education malpractice.” And they’ve nodded along while liberals have cast congressional Republicans trying to rein in NCLB as racists seeking to “retreat” to the days of Orval Faubus.

In finding a new and better way, conservative education reformers should be guided by four principles.

First, cede nothing to the Left on education. Conservatives should stop acting as if they were playing on someone else’s turf. After all, one can’t talk credibly about earned success, personal responsibility, or opportunity without talking about education. This should make school reform a natural issue for conservatives. While liberals are championing more bureaucracy, racial grievance, and public spending, reformers on the right can and should talk about empowering families with innovative solutions that improve performance and cut costs.

Second, stop appeasing liberals on questions of values. When the Left insists that school reform requires endorsing its views on policing, transgender issues, or immigration, conservatives should stop swallowing their objections or bashfully shaking their heads. If that means passing on a board seat, a grant, or an otherwise fruitful collaboration, then so be it. Bipartisanship on one party’s terms is hardly worth the name.

Third, continue to make the compelling argument that the crucial obstacles to improvement are the monopolies and cartels that dominate American education. This means embracing charter schools, vouchers, online learning, and education-savings accounts, and working to dial back the scope of public-sector collective bargaining.

Fourth, no more well-meaning compromises on Washington’s role. Republicans in Congress seem to have taken this lesson to heart already. The best strategies for improving education emanate from states and communities, in accord with our federalist system. Why? Because schools are complex, human organizations that exist in diverse communities with vastly different dynamics and needs. The most effective reforms are designed on the ground and instituted by teachers and administrators with a personal stake in the results.

Bipartisanship is good when it does not involve compromising one’s commitments. And education policy will remain an area where people of good will on both sides of the ideological divide can find much common ground. But both sides have to want to find it. Conservative reformers should think of the best solutions they can and advocate them with consistency and principle — with or without their old liberal allies.

– Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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