Liberal education reform after Obama

Throughout the Obama administration, the president and his supporters have had to reconcile his post-partisan campaign vision with the political trench warfare reality of the last six years. Republicans determined early on that their electoral incentives pointed rightward and against any collaboration with the president. After getting repeatedly spurned by Republicans refusing to meet halfway on policy, Democrats eventually wrote off any hope of bipartisan cooperation.

Yet many may not realize that there has been one significant policy area where the parties’ respective centers have coalesced: education. The Obama administration has loosened and modified parts of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform law, such as by granting states waivers in exchange for individualized accountability standards. But the administration has continued the same policy commitments embedded in No Child Left Behind, including greater school choice, greater uniformity (through the Common Core standards), and data-driven accountability.

But eight years in the presidency has masked the Democratic schism on education. The party hosts two vastly different flanks of education policy. It has a center-left flank that has come to embrace the bipartisan education reform movement, including figures like President Obama, Andrew Cuomo, Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel, and Corey Booker (who even supports vouchers to pay for low-income children to attend private schools). At the same time, there’s a populist wing that resists some of the key tenets of education reform, featuring the likes of Mayor De Blasio, teachers’ unions, and other progressive education reform skeptics.

The pro-education reform wing has been subsumed into the national Democratic platform, but will this outlive the Obama administration? Obama may have been a unique Democratic candidate. His meteoric ascent meant that he was less encumbered with commitments to traditional interest groups like teacher’s unions than other national Democrats have been. Plus, the recent rise of Democratic figures like De Blasio and Elizabeth Warren has been heralded as a progressive shift in Democratic politics.

Would this endanger the Democratic embrace of education reform? Has Obama been an aberration? It is worth looking to De Blasio’s recent charter school battles in New York and to the anti-charter case made by education reform skeptics like Diane Ravitch to see what the future landscape of liberal education policy might look like.

In New York, Mayor De Blasio just emerged from a damaging face-off with New York City’s charter school sector (really just a face-off with Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy schools). No one had to wait for the dust to settle to see the verdict: the mayor got trounced. Even before the state intervened and overruled De Blasio, he was already backpedaling from his aggressive stance on cutting back on charters. After (partially) following through on campaign rhetoric –that there was “no way in hell” Moskowitz’s schools should operate rent-free – by denying space for three new Success Academy schools, De Blasio soon had to soften his approach. Besieged by media and advocacy ads, the mayor backed down and promised that he’d find space for the rejected schools.

Ultimately, state lawmakers interceded, prohibiting the city from charging public charter schools rent, along with boosting per pupil charter school funding from the state. In exchange, De Blasio got funding toward his universal pre-kindergarten plan, but his anti-charter crusade appeared largely dead.

What does this episode tell us about the politics of education reform? Certainly, we saw that charter schools can be a powerful political force of their own. They have a concentrated and energized natural constituency of students, families, and educators, while also enjoying lavish support from major financial interests. The advertising barrage launched against De Blasio showed that charters have become a force to be reckoned with.

Perhaps the De Blasio-Moskowitz battle doesn’t tell us much outside of New York’s political environment. After all, a pro-charter governor trumps a charter-resistant mayor. But it certainly seems that if a progressive like De Blasio had to agree to accommodate charters, then any national Democrat likely would too.

Setting aside power politics, however, the charter school resistance is also just plain losing the debate. Bill Moyers interviewed Diane Ravitch last week. Ravitch is a preeminent education historian and one of the most visible charter school opponents. While she received zero push back from Moyers, her interview was a useful summation of many of the flaws of her new book (Reign of Error) and the weak rhetorical deceits that charter school opponents often employ.

Charter opponents often imply or outright assert that charter schools are not public schools. For instance, Ravitch warned that cities across the country are in danger of having no public schools in the near future – “where public schools become, if they still exist, they will be a dumping ground for the kids that the charter schools don’t want.” To Ravitch and others, charter schools epitomize a creeping privatization of public education.

This, however, is demonstrably false. Charter schools are unquestionably public schools. They accept all students who apply (resorting to a lottery or waiting list after they hit capacity) and do not charge tuition. They are authorized under state law, whereby a governmental authority grants a charter to an organization to operate a public school. Ravitch harps on the small number of charter schools that are run by for-profit organizations, telling Moyers that “[t]he worst thing about the charters is the profit motive.” But these account for only about 12% of all charter schools nationwide. Most charters are instead run by non-profit groups of education reformers and teachers.

Ravitch’s broader objection is the claim that wealthy financiers are running the charter school movement. True, many highly regarded charter schools enjoy financial support from hedge funds and financial institutions. But there is little evidence to suggest that this is part of a deeper scheme to privatize and monetize public education, as Ravitch does. Instead, these financiers seem to be drawn to charter schools for the same reasons the Gates and Broad foundations have been. Charter schools retain the flexible dynamic environment that financiers like, offering space for innovation and experimentation. Financiers see charter schools as a place where they can have a meaningful philanthropic impact for their money. To Ravitch, Wall Street investment in charter schools seeks financial returns through some (ill-defined) profitmaking scheme. However, the more likely explanation is that these financiers are instead seeking a knowable and reliable positive social return on their investments, rather than a financial one.

Ravitch also makes a second – and more fundamental – critique of charter schools and education reform generally: that it’s completely unnecessary because our schools are doing just fine. “American public education is not failing,” Ravitch says. “It’s not declining. It’s not obsolete.”

How does Ravitch deny the existence of any pressing public education crisis? She attributes the persistent achievement gap separating middle-class and white kids from low-income and minority kids to crushing poverty that schools can do little to overcome. This view – that student demography foretells their destiny – draws on research by James Coleman and other academics, arguing that student achievement is nearly entirely preordained by socioeconomic status. Education reform opponents argue that teachers and schools should not be held accountable for societal inequality, troubled households, deteriorating schools, and relentless poverty.

There is substantial truth in these points. Lowering our achievement gap would be immensely easier if we provided economic security and physical safety for all American children. But the demographic fatalism of Ravitch and others takes a dim view of the potential impact that a great school can have. Education reformers reject the idea that demography is destiny, laying their hopes on the crucial caveat to this otherwise dismal research: that socioeconomic disadvantage can be overcome by heroic teaching.

If Ravitch’s education crisis denialism amounts to an argument that our achievement gap is nothing more than the natural reflection of poverty, so there’s no need to reform our education system – well, then such grim resignation is a losing argument. True, charter schools have room to improve. For instance, more charters should backfill vacated seats by admitting students from their waiting lists. Charters point to their waitlists to demonstrate the high demand for school choice, but many refuse to admit students from these lists mid-year for fear of academic disruption. More backfilling, however, would blunt the accusation that charters don’t play by the same rules as traditional public schools do and weaken the incentive to push out high needs or problematic students to game test scores.

On average, charter schools seem to achieve at similar levels as public schools.  But certain charter schools have repeatedly proven able to succeed with populations that have long been failed by our public school system. This success undermines the skeptics’ demographic resignation while building a larger network of believers. As Mayor De Blasio found out, this network has serious heft to it. So when we consider the prospects for liberal education reform after Obama, the De Blasio stand-off increasingly looks like something else entirely: the last gasp of resistance from the populist left to the idea that school choice should play a meaningful role in our education and anti-poverty efforts.


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