After years of largely driving the education policy agenda, high-profile Democrats are awkwardly walking back their support of even the most sensible education reform measures to satisfy a base that has no intention of playing nice with the new administration.
The change represents a dramatic shift for a political party that has played a critical role in ushering in increased accountability, transparency, flexibility, and, at times, even choice in the education system. But after a bruising presidential election, it is clear that some in the Democratic Party are struggling to cope in the new political landscape.
Among them is Washington Sen. Patty Murray, ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Policy Committee, who recently lamented to an audience at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress that she had hoped to be working with a Clinton administration after the election. The senior senator from Washington state was defiant in her remarks, forcefully articulating a set of policy proposals that are at odds with most of what the Trump administration has been calling for, including using federal dollars to expand school choice.
The remarks leaned heavily on a 20-page memorandum she issued to her fellow Senate Democrats days before her speech. In it, she made her case against increased school choice — and provided the public with the closest look we have at the Democratic Party’s playbook on education policy with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress.
While Murray’s memo raised some legitimate questions, the underlying premise that schools of choice are unaccountable ignored the reality of a severely uneven public school system that continues to leave far too many students behind, particularly in big cities with considerable minority populations, and is largely unaccountable for chronic underperformance.
To counter this, Murray pointed to what she sees as the devastating consequences of school choice in rural parts of the country that have no option but public schools. It is an argument that reeks of desperation, because at both the state and federal levels, proponents of school choice have largely been calling for targeted school choice programs to serve low-income, minority families living in urban centers. Studies also suggest that expanding school choice comes at no harm to the public school system.
What’s more, many of Murray’s arguments against choice are the same ones used by supporters of choice to promote increased options for families. “Parents and communities need reliable, transparent information to determine whether schools are serving their children well and that they are making appropriate gains,” the senator wrote. Unfortunately, in many low-income, minority-majority school districts, academic achievement scores remain stagnant (despite a steady increase in per-pupil spending in recent years in most districts), which is why many families are clamoring for additional choices.
Public opinion polling confirms this, as does the record number of Latino and African-American parents choosing to enroll their children in public charter schools.
These trends are worrisome to teachers unions that see the growing support for schools of choice, including charter schools, as a direct threat to the public school model. The New Republic is even clearer on what the Democrats have to do as the minority party:
“Hobbled as they are in the minority, Democrats must gear up to fight the coming assault on schooling as a public good. In the process, they will have to do something arguably more difficult: Acknowledge that the Democratic Party has lost its way in recent years on education policy, with many buying into the bad ideas and faulty assumptions that led Obama to double down on Bush’s failings.”
Although Murray’s memo did not go so far as to criticize President Barack Obama’s education agenda, there were few signs that Democrats have any plans to build on their support for the recent federal education overhaul known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which included a number of conservative-friendly measures, including empowering states and local school districts with greater autonomy on education policy and earmarking $245 million for charter school grants.
ESSA’s passage built on the bipartisan support for its predecessor, the landmark 2002 No Child Left Behind Act signed into law by President George W. Bush, the signature legislative domestic achievement of his first term. Joined by the late liberal lion Sen. Edward Kennedy, Bush was able to accomplish a feat that had eluded President Bill Clinton despite criticisms from both sides of the ideological spectrum that the education system was failing far too many.
In his memoir, Kennedy wrote:
“Politics aside, if we had a shot at education reform, especially with a Republican president and a Republican Senate and a Republican House, well, I was going to try to seize it. Several months of negotiation, frustration, and compromise led at last to the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Flawed but necessary, No Child was itself a child of bipartisanship.”
Fast-forward nearly 16 years later. Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House. Only this time, Democrats are digging in their heels and telegraphing few signs that they are interested in working with their Republican counterparts on the Hill and with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump.
All this suggests that for the next four to eight years, the most ambitious and far-reaching education reform measures may happen at the state level, not in Washington — despite lofty expectations that a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican president would follow through on a long wish list for education reformers. To be sure, DeVos could do much at the helm of the Education Department, but after a contentious confirmation hearing, she has been treading lightly in her new role.
An impasse in Congress, largely as a result of a Democratic Party having no interest in working with Republicans, and an education secretary largely staying on the sidelines may mean that states will drive the education agenda. And for some education reformers, that is exactly how they may want things.