On Party Politics and Education Reform Right Now

If you're interested in a detailed policy analysis of what Obama's second term could mean for early childhood and K-12 education, take a look at what my colleagues and I at the New America Foundation are projecting. I just want to say a word here about the larger, political realignment of the parties and various interest groups on school reform. A lot of standards-and-accountability reformers are rending their garments over the loss on Tuesday of Tony Bennett, the Indiana state schools superintendent who worked with Republican governor Mitch Daniels to implement the Common Core curriculum standards, tie teacher evaluation to student test scores, allow the state to takeover struggling schools, and provide vouchers for private school tuition. He was defeated at the ballot box by Glenda Ritz, a veteran teacher, union leader, and school librarian who ran with support from both organized labor and local-control conservatives. Ritz's allies on the right were angered, at least in part, by the Daniels administration's embrace of the nationally-shared Commore Core standards.

With the exception of vouchers, the Daniels/Bennett reform agenda was indistinguishable from that of many Democrats who have forged productive, if at times very strained, relationships with teachers' unions, including President Obama, Newark mayor Cory Booker, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Both big national teachers' unions, the AFT and the NEA, are strong supporters of the Common Core. And new union-negotiated teacher contracts across the country evaluate and pay teachers in part according to how well they improve student achievement. So what we're seeing is that data-driven, standardized testing-centered school reform is most politically palatable when it is pursued by Democrats. As Alexander Russo notes, reformers need to support school funding if they want to be trusted by teachers and the public. In other words, as the PAC Democrats for Education Reform has long argued, the standards-and-accountability agenda seems to make the biggest strides when it is pursued by Democratic politicians, because of the Nixon-goes-to-China power of the traditional allies of teachers' unions and public schools asking them to change their ways. 

None of this is intended to be a normative statement either for or against this particular agenda. I'm generally more skeptical of testing and more bullish on (modernized) vocational education and school desegregation than the standards-and-accountability movement writ large. But after covering education for six years, it has become more and more clear to me that in places where mainstream Democratic politicians embrace standards/accountability/choice-driven reform, the education left–teachers' unions, class size activists, charter school foes–have few recourses on Election Day. Where the choice/accountability agenda is most closely affiliated with Republicans, on the other hand, the unions can push back, hard, at the ballot.

It's worth noting that the one-party "state" of Washington, D.C. proved somewhat of an exception to this rule, in that the American Federation of Teachers developed special animus for Michelle Rhee and spent heavily to unseat her Democratic patron, Adrian Fenty. Yet even under new mayor Vincent Gray, the Rhee accountability agenda soldiers on.

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