Why a reversal on education reform could doom Democrats in 2016

Education-blackboard

This article first appeared on The Hill on November 13, 2015.

Contenders vying for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination likely won’t address the topic of K-12 education in Saturday’s debate, but even without a discussion, it’s easy to tell where they stand on the issue.

They made it pretty clear last month, when all of the Democratic candidates skipped out on an invitation to address education issues at a forum moderated by former CNN anchor turned education-reform activist Campbell Brown. Meanwhile, frontrunner Hillary Clinton moved quickly to align with national teachers’ unions early in the campaign — a suggestion that she’ll veer from her past support of charter schools and other pro-reform policies that President Obama’s administration has courageously embraced.

Let’s call this move what it is: a pivot in the wrong policy direction to pander to a sizable interest group — teachers’ unions — that comes at the expense of mostly low-income, minority kids who desperately need high-quality school options. But the Democrats’ education reform reversal is not just wrongheaded on the substance; it’s also a bad move politically for a myriad of reasons.
First, consider the next generation of voters. A plurality of Millennials in the Harvard University Institute of Politics’ biennial survey supported school choice, and the same survey found strong distrust of government among this demographic, signaling a disposition among Millennials that’s more open to innovation and education change.

What’s more, Millennials have grown up in the Teach For America era, in which it’s become mainstream to see their peers take nontraditional paths into teaching, and in an age in which technology is dramatically reshaping every aspect of society, including education. It’s no wonder, then, that GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson identified education as an issue on which Republicans have the potential to win over young voters in her book, The Selfie Vote.

Democrats also risk alienating traditional party supporters by rejecting a reform agenda. Low-income and minority voters have a vested interest in supporting policies designed to provide their children with better educational opportunities. In recent years they’ve begun to mobilize behind the issue — as demonstrated by high-profile student protests of threats to charter schools and pushback against the Common Core opt-out movement from key civil rights groups. It’s not a stretch, then, to imagine a rollback of federal policies that support high academic standards and quality school options could shift behavior among these voters on a broader scale.

It’s worth acknowledging that education reforms historically have been embraced by the right and rejected by the left, which has traditionally aligned with teachers’ unions. But that has shifted dramatically in the last decade under the leadership of President Obama and other Democratic reformers, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (Colo.). And many of these politicians have been re-elected since enacting their reform policies, a signal that being a pro-reform Democrat doesn’t spell political doom.

Rather than backing away from reform, the 2016 contenders should seize the opportunity to build from the existing momentum their high-profile fellow Democrats have established and make K-12 education reform a nonpartisan issue. Then, instead of bickering over interest-group-driven politics, we could have a substantive, national conversation about how to refine the much-needed reforms so they create the best opportunities for kids who need them most.

Some might argue it’s instead worth rehashing the hyperbolic, two-decades-old debates about whether we should invest in charter schools or administer standardized tests. But it’s pretty clear that the principles at the heart of the reform movement work; that is, creating high-quality schools where principals and teachers have the professional autonomy needed to thrive, and the critical information about student performance needed to best support their academic growth.

Schools across the country that have these conditions — many of them charters, but some of them within school districts — are producing better results. The most stunning example of this is New Orleans, which overhauled its urban district into a system of schools free of district bureaucracy and union rules after Hurricane Katrina. According to authors of an August 2015 report by Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, “The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

Democrats across the country are recognizing these realities and acting accordingly. Their peers in the 2016 race should follow suit — for the sake of their political future, and the well-being of millions of their youngest constituents.

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Why a reversal on education reform could doom Democrats in 2016

Education-blackboard

This article first appeared on The Hill on November 13, 2015.
Contenders vying for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination likely won’t address the topic of K-12 education in Saturday’s debate, but even without a discussion, it’s easy to tell where they stand on the issue.
They made it pretty clear last month, when all of the Democratic candidates skipped out on an invitation to address education issues at a forum moderated by former CNN anchor turned education-reform activist Campbell Brown. Meanwhile, frontrunner Hillary Clinton moved quickly to align with national teachers’ unions early in the campaign — a suggestion that she’ll veer from her past support of charter schools and other pro-reform policies that President Obama’s administration has courageously embraced.
Let’s call this …

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