Rotherham: Who the Next Ed Secretary Will Be Is the Wrong Parlor Game. The Real Question — Which Party Will Get Its Act Together on Education First?

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Voters delivered a split verdict in November’s election. Joe Biden defeated an incumbent president by the largest margin since FDR in 1932. Yet he’s poised to be the first president since Grover Cleveland to come into office without a Senate majority.

That mixed message continued down ballot despite the sense that 2020 would be a decisive year.

In statehouses, little appreciably changed, so Republicans will have a stronger hand than expected for this redistricting cycle, which is no small thing. Democrats unexpectedly lost seats in the House of Representatives, and progressive priorities like affirmative action and tax reform failed — in California, in 2020. But Arizona voters narrowly approved a tax on high earners earmarked for schools, and Colorado passed a sin tax for the same purpose. Colorado voters also approved a straight-up state income tax reduction, Illinois voters rejected a progressive state tax plan and Arkansans kept higher tax rates for transportation.

President Donald Trump carried Florida, a state Republicans dominate statewide, and voters approved a phased-in increase of the minimum wage to $15. This follows a similar blend of progressive initiatives and Republican officeholders winning in the Sunshine State in 2018.

There are plenty of facts for plenty of theories about what a restless and divided American electorate wants. So, what, now, for schools?

It’s hard to know, though there is a very 1990s feel to things. Education seems an issue that out-of-power Republicans, if the GOP can escape the specter of Trump, will highlight as it redefines itself for 2024. After the 2020 election, it’s a stretch to say the Republicans are a true working-class party, yet it’s not hard to see the glimmers of that future — and an education component to it, especially a parent choice focus. Meanwhile, Democrats are under intense pressure from institutional interests that feel they’ve been shut out of policymaking for too long.

Democrats mostly represent supplier interests in education (schools and universities), so there is fertile ground for the party that steps up to aggressively and consistently represent the consumers (parents and kids). This seems especially potent in the wake of COVID-19. In a Bellwether Education poll of 1,234 representative American adults in October, 42 percent overall, and 47 percent of women, said the pandemic had made them feel more favorable toward school choice (just 6 percent said it had made them less supportive).

The past four decades have seen an increase in education spending that most domestic policy domains would envy; but for a variety of reasons, teachers and schools don’t always benefit from those resources. That leads to an appetite for education investment, also made more acute by the coronavirus crisis. That’s probably the one education issue Democrats of all stripes agree on.

Still, deep divides about structural issues still lurk — in particular, how much choice parents should have about where their kids attend school, how schools should be held accountable for their performance and what reforms should accompany those resources. There is a lazy framing to intra-Democratic fights that defaults to left versus center. But in education, the alignments are less linear — and, thankfully, more interesting. For instance, in November, a coalition of interest groups from the civil rights and education worlds sent a letter to the Department of Education pleading against blanket waivers allowing states to skip assessments again in spring 2021.

The letter, and persistent demands for transparency and accountability from groups across the left and center-left spectrum, illustrate how the Democratic divide in education is not so much accountability versus resources as it is accountability-plus-funding versus just funding.

That’s the crux of the K-12 environment President-elect Joe Biden is walking into. Democratic education reformers have generally supported investments in schools and public services that are related to schools (and that reform historically inequitable state school finance schemes). The debate turns on what sort of accountability should accompany those resources, and too often the answer is none or provisions so vague as to be meaningless. It’s why you didn’t hear too much pushback against Biden’s idea to triple funding for Title I, but everyone is up in arms about charter schools and testing.

Democrats don’t have to become an anything-goes school-choice party — and they shouldn’t, as there is good reason for skepticism about some choice ideas. However, it’s not politically tenable to be an across-the-board anti-school choice party in 21st century America and hold a diverse political coalition together. And make no mistake, that’s the practical effect of policies that, for example, allow only school districts to approve charter schools.

The awkward problem for Democrats is that majorities of Black and Hispanic Americans support school choice options and are more likely than white progressives to do so. The good news for Democrats is that there are relatively few single-issue education voters in federal races; the bad news is that Republicans don’t have to make deep inroads with Black and Hispanic voters to throw up electoral roadblocks. Twenty percent Black support, rather than the approximately 12 percent Trump received in 2020, would put Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin back in the Republican column.

Besides, it’s an ironic political liability that at a time when the country, and in particular Democrats, are discussing structural inequality and racism in American life, ideas about giving poor parents choices or holding schools accountable for addressing racial disparities remain so controversial. Especially when a political formula of investing more in schools while reforming the system enjoys broad support from voters. Among Democrats, why should schooling be the one place giving the poor money and power is somehow a bad idea?

Long term, asking that question and resolving the tension at the heart of the Democratic coalition matters a lot more — both for the political fortunes of Democrats and, more importantly, for Americans scrambling to give their kids a fighting chance in an unforgiving economy — than who, specifically, the next secretary of education is. The secretary pick is about who has leverage now; the real question facing Democrats is about the party’s future.

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a national nonprofit organization working to support educational innovation and improve educational outcomes for low-income students, and serves on The 74’s board of directors. In addition, among other professional work, he is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, writes the blog Eduwonk.com, teaches at The University of Virginia and is a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors.

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