Opinion

Bradford: More Wins Than Losses for Education Reform in a Tumultuous Election Year, Especially in NY

By Derrell Bradford | November 15, 2016

Thousands of charter school supporters rallied in Brooklyn's Prospect Park Wednesday.Photo: Kate Stringer
The dust is settling from Election Day. And though many people struggle to find the upside in the White House’s residents-in-waiting, there is both bad and good news for education reformers — and lessons that should be internalized if we plan to protect and advance the policy issues we hold dear now and into the future.
First the bad news. Charter advocates have, unfortunately, learned what advocates of tax credits and vouchers learned many years ago with statewide referenda in Michigan and California. They now know that whether or not there is actually any policy downside for people who live in districts where they perceive their schools to be good to excellent, those folks will believe there is and turn out to fight in force.
 

Massachusetts’s high-handed, anti-charter suburbanism is of a different flavor than anti-voucher sentiment in the previously mentioned states, but the effect was the same: a shameful defeat of efforts to grow the Bay State’s best public school sector when it comes to closing achievement gaps for low-income and minority kids. Tribalism and localism have reached new levels of toxicity in the deep blue Northeast. The trend seems primed to continue.

The good news is this: In failing to secure the election of Secretary Hillary Clinton — whom they backed, to the chagrin of many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, early in the primary process — the teachers unions also lost the ability to wrest control of the U.S. Department of Education. Moreover, a Justice Antonin Scalia–like nominee is a good bet to join the U.S. Supreme Court during President-elect Trump’s administration.

While there are serious concerns with such a nominee on myriad issues, a refiling of Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association seems inevitable. If Scalia’s change of heart is embraced by the new appointee, a majority (four conservatives, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy) would be in favor of eliminating the teachers unions’ right to compulsory dues collection.

The result could be catastrophic for the National Education Association’s and the American Federation of Teachers’ political action at the state and local level. It might not even the playing field at the state level, but it would likely mean the peaks would not be as high nor the valleys as deep as they are currently.

They also failed to support candidates who would push their agenda in Congress, with Republican control remaining the status quo. To clarify, the NEA and AFT often back incumbents of both parties (despite their respective progressive countenances), and they are happy to partner with conservatives when it is to their advantage, as with the sabotaging of Common Core and teacher evaluation reform. But given the discontent and, to be clear, fear across the country, their inability to power a Democratic revolution at any level of Congress augurs poorly for the might of the once 800-pound gorilla in the national political room.

For the good news, you can also look to New York. There the reform-focused Super PACs — New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany (led by StudentsFirst NY) and New Yorkers for Independent Action (a creature of the InvestInEd Coalition) — supported a suite of both Democratic and Republican candidates in both the Assembly and the Senate to keep school choice at the heart of the state’s education reform agenda.

Together they raised more than $11 million to make sure the New York State United Teachers did not undo the progress made in one of the nation’s best charter school sectors, and to keep scholarships for low- and middle-income families on the legislative agenda. And there are three things these groups and the state’s advocacy efforts share that all states should look to as they design or seek to ramp up their own school reform efforts.

Clarity

While many reform groups gravitate to the erudite, fix-the-district systems change of the moment, New York is typified by a fearless focus on choice — among the more difficult reforms, even if it is the most tangible for parents and families. While not without companion efforts to improve district schooling and safety for many children who languish in underperforming traditional public schools, the unwavering focus is on charter sustainability and growth. That, and a decoupling of who your parents are and where you live from whether you attend the right school — public, private or otherwise — drive the lion’s share of the state’s policy and advocacy. A state where the advocates know their north star is a state that is immediately better off in the political realm. A state where the embraced reforms translate into actual constituencies — both on the demand side and on the donor side — even more so.

Consistency

If there is one thing political parties understand, it is that politics is a long game that must be played as long as you have something to protect and grow in the public space. Unlike the drop-in-get-out electoral work that, for instance, typifies the highest-profile school board races, New York’s long, multi-cycle electoral view showcases a deep and sophisticated understanding of what it takes not just to make change but to have that change stick. The past three election cycles have seen significant wins for charter school facilities and co-location, as well as intense support for private school choice among Senate Republicans and key Democrats in both houses, as well as the governor. That’s indicative of the consistent view of New York’s advocacy community, as well as its willingness to break eggs to make something fantastic during election season. A political win one day may mean families are empowered, but New York’s advocates understand that no power is devolved without constant pressure as well.

Ferocity

If there are three words that describe the posture of New York advocates, they are: all-out war. Advocates in many states are deeply interested in breaking bread and finding common ground with status quo–ists, who would be dancing on our collective graves right now if the elections had turned out differently. But New York’s particular flavor of advocacy, donor interest and flat-out embracing of political and reform realities has created a warrior culture, one where it is understood that New York City’s United Federation of Teachers and its fellow travelers do not concede a world in which charter schools or other forms of non-district choice exist at all. This fundamental reality is one that eludes many reformers, but it sits squarely at the center of what happens in the Empire State.

And that aggressive, walk-on-glass posture pays dividends. In a presidential year when Democrats expected to take control of the state Senate (the head of the state’s Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee offered that “Democrats are poised to have a historic victory”) and a deeply unpopular candidate was at the top of the Republican presidential ticket, the teachers unions’ swing-and-miss was a failure greater than any Casey endured in Mudville.

While reformers overwhelmingly backed and supported winners, just 3 percent of the $3.9 million spent by the teachers unions went to winning candidates. If there is a letter sent to hardworking teachers by their union with these results (“Sorry, we wasted $3,747,900 of your hard-earned money”), I, among others, would most certainly like to see it.

Hubris ruins the best and worst of heroic narratives, and I caution all reformers to take their victories and hold them close, even as we try to figure out the broader social ramifications of last week’s elections at every level. But the lesson here for America is also a simple one that extends across states and across issues. Believe strongly in what matters, even if it is difficult. Fight for it every chance you get. And fight your hardest at every opportunity. Doing this may not guarantee victory. Not doing it will most certainly guarantee defeat.

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