Opinion

Andy Rotherham: The Democrats Are Betting on Competence, Not Education Policy, for November

By Andrew Rotherham | July 26, 2016

Photo: Getty Images
This originally appeared as part of The 74’s Democratic National Convention Live Blog, which was produced in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners. See our full DNC archive.
As long as the Democrats don’t burn the place down, it’s going to be hard for them to have a worse convention than the GOP just did. Plagiarism, campaign team drama, theater on the stage, and Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. There were calls to jail the opposing candidate and concerns for the physical safety of the spouse of a United States Senator. You know what else? They nominated Donald Trump to be President of the United States. Quite a show.
Say what you like about Hillary Clinton (I served in her husband’s administration so I’m biased), but she has the experience and temperament to be president. Her running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, does as well. (Read more about Kaine’s education priorities) That will be on display in Philadelphia — because both parts of the Democratic ticket are serious public officials and public servants, while only half of the Republican ticket (and not the top half) is.
Thrilling? No. Instead this election brings to mind the old Gray Davis quip about voters and enthusiasm: They don’t have to be enthusiastic, Davis once observed, they just have to pull the right lever when the curtain closes.
Clinton’s pick of Kaine signals confidence that voters are going to understand this, eagerly or not. It’s the kind of pick you make when you think you are going to win the election, not when you’re really worried about winning it. Kaine doesn’t bring a lot of ballast if Clinton’s back is against the wall in late October facing a Trump surge. But most professional politicos don’t see one coming, and her team apparently doesn't either. And it’s not about electoral votes. If Clinton can’t carry a state like Virginia, with its vote-rich suburbs against Donald Trump, with or without a Virginian on the ticket, then she’s in huge trouble. Instead, this is a pick with an eye on governing and success in office much more than it is about getting there.
As for any focus on education this week? Yawn. The Democrats remain split on the issue along a few dimensions, although reformers certainly don’t have the upper hand. That will change over time though, and the election isn’t really about education in the first place. Presidential ones rarely are, and this one is even less so. To the extent education really matters, the emerging fault line is around workers dislocated by trade or technology. That’s a genuine problem, a boil Donald Trump picks at, and another issue that creates schisms among Democrats. There are more things we could be doing to help those workers now, but the education piece of that issue is a long game.
Still, you’ll hear lots of rhetoric about defending our schools, fighting for them, and all that. The architecture of the special interest coalition and the party core guarantee it. But in the post-ESSA world, what the federal government can do on K-12 is limited — what it can do absent congressional assent is even more so. That’s why pre-K and college affordability are attractive, and you’ll be hearing a lot about them going forward. They’re real issues affecting Americans, places the next administration could act in real ways, and issues where Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine are aligned.
In terms of Kaine and education, if Clinton’s current disposition on charter schools and education reform is evolving and impressionistic, his take is more clear. He’s not a reformer, Kaine’s never championed school choice for poor parents, any sort of real kids-first accountability for their schools or teachers, or the kind of leading edge innovation you see in some states. In the debate over whether public schools need more (money, staff, etc. spread around) or need different (choice, accountability, more money sent toward poor kids etc.), he’s firmly in the “more” camp, with the wing of the Democratic party that sees school systems and their adult constituencies as the proper driver of education policy. It’s a stance that helps balance some of his other positions where he strays from Democratic orthodoxy.
Kaine is, however, a strong champion of career and technical education, so that community will have an advocate in the White House if the ticket wins. There are some big policy and practice opportunities in CTE right now — especially for proposals and ideas that expand CTE without perpetuating the socio-economic and race-based expectation gaps that plague public education. And Kaine’s wife, who currently serves as Virginia’s education secretary, has pushed on foster care issues — a group of young people frequently ill-served and overlooked by public systems. A second lady championing that issue could do a lot of good for a lot of American kids in hard situations. No small thing. So good ideas around the edges, but don’t expect any broad effort to pop the balloon that is America’s inequitable and racially and economically unfair public education system. A pretty good fit with where the Democratic party largely is on the issue at this moment in the campaign, and a great fit with educationally status quo-oriented Virginia.  
For now, though, none of this really matters. This election isn’t about issues, as Donald Trump’s dystopian acceptance speech last Thursday night showed. The Democrats are betting Trump’s bombastic and fearful act won’t wear well in the crucible of a general election, and that while Americans like some entertainment in their politics and want real change, they don’t roll the dice with the presidency.
That’s the underlying Democratic theme now: Competence, temperament, do no political harm. It’s not a thrilling message, there’s not a big place for K-12 reform in it, but it’s a plausible strategy in this bizarre political environment. Let’s hope they know what they are doing because, just in case you were not paying attention to Cleveland, a lot is riding on that strategy being right.
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