The 74 Interview: Writer Jonathan Chait on the Democratic War Over Education Reform

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See previous 74 Interviews: Andrew Rotherham on the Virginia governor’s race, pollster David Paleologos on the 2022 elections, and historian Daryl Scott on the debate over how we teach history. The full archive is here

Jonathan Chait has been writing about the fraught politics of education reform for over a decade.

The veteran political columnist for New York Magazine is a vigorous advocate for the pillars of liberal education reform: high academic standards, school choice, and test-based accountability for schools and teachers who aren’t meeting expectations. It was an outlook that largely fit with Democratic Party orthodoxy in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when Barack Obama and his allies in Congress successfully pushed many states to expand charter schools and adopt the Common Core standards. 

But as the years passed and the Obama era ticked down, his essays on K-12 schools took on a somewhat anxious tone. Resurgent teachers’ unions began exerting more influence at all levels of Democratic politics, including the effort to replace the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Then Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos arrived in Washington, further polarizing a debate around charters that had already begun to split the party. By 2018, Chait was openly calling on Obama to save his “forgotten education legacy.”

That was all before the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of American students suffered severe academic losses over months of prolonged school closures. Now, less than seven months from November’s midterm elections, Chait warns that Democrats around the country may lose the support of voters alienated by a faction that “doesn’t see educational achievement as something important.” 

Those views have earned Chait the enmity of some educators and activists, who have accused him of scapegoating teachers over COVID-related school closures and intermittently called for him to “disclose” his wife’s career as an education consultant. In response, he has brought a pugilistic tone to intra-Left disputes that makes him one of the most compelling writers in liberal journalism.

In an interview with Kevin Mahnken, Chait offered a K-12 agenda for Democrats and explained why he believes that “the straightest line to better education reform probably involves running over the teachers’ unions, at minimum.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Education has always been an issue that Democrats have won on, and there’s some polling evidence that they still do. But you’ve expressed the view that it could be a liability for them this fall, in part because parents may not see the party as reflecting their values or priorities. What are the party’s vulnerabilities here?

There are a few potential causes, some of which they have more control over than others. One simple one was that the [American] Rescue Plan gave an enormous amount of money to states, more than they needed to fill their budget holes, and some of them used that money to increase teacher pay. That included [governors] in Florida and other Republican-controlled states, who were able to boost teacher pay and kind of seize the political center without having to pay for it with taxes. So that’s given them a leg up.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enjoys strong prospects for reelection after blazing a rightwing path on COVID closures and classroom teaching. (Jabin Botsford/Getty Images)

Number two would be the pandemic, during which Republicans have had a more aggressive pro-opening stance than Democrats. The Democrats have really caught up, and I can’t think of many places where schools are being closed anymore, so I’m not really sure that will be a big issue. But it’s possible that Democrats have lost some credibility on that issue because they were behind Republicans in calling for reopening in some states. And this is what I wrote about recently — there are some fears that this has given an opening to the Right to split Democratic constituencies from teachers’ unions and basically say, “Look, the unions had this irrational, harmful position. Maybe you should be questioning some of the other things they say.” Now, some people on the Left are framing this as a kind of diabolical plot on the Right and not as a mistake the unions made, which is how I think we should view it. Regardless, there is that danger that some people who didn’t really question the unions before are questioning them now.

But the biggest ongoing risk factor here is the potential for schools to become laboratories to introduce lefty ideas that don’t have majority support and, in many cases, don’t have strong empirical support. The reason for that is that education schools and unions have both become incubators for a lot of pretty radical ideas that don’t always hold up to evidence or to public opinion. This is a little hard to quantify, but you see it in some places that are scaling back the use of standardized tests, scaling back tracking. It’s exaggerated by the Right to a huge degree, but there are places where — they’re not really teaching “critical race theory,” but they’re teaching historical interpretations that are aligned with certain left-wing challenges to liberalism. That’s happening a lot in elite private schools, but probably a little in public schools too.

Because schools are an area where these policy changes can be implemented without democratic approval, it opens the door to people being exposed to ideology that springs from the far Left. You know, you have pretty left-wing people with ideas for all kinds of areas of American life. The Squad would say, “We should abolish the police! We should abolish private insurance!” But they can’t do that because you actually need to pass those proposals through a legislative body; to make changes to schools, you don’t need to do that. That’s the reason why schools are an area where the Left can operationalize policies that can’t really pass democratic muster, and it makes education a danger zone for Democrats.

While these are all areas of exposure for the party, education is one of those issues that really doesn’t have a history of turning national elections. Is 2022 going to be different, or are your warnings here just an example of the pundit’s fallacy?

Well, we don’t know how widespread these pedagogical changes are. I don’t really know how you’d go about measuring that, and I don’t think anyone has tried. And the second question is, even if they’ve spread widely, how much would that affect voting behaviors? We don’t know that either. That’s why I’d depict this as a risk factor, but how big a risk is really hard to say.

You’ve been writing for close to a decade about the decline in support among Democrats for what has loosely been described as “education reform.” What’s your theory for how the party began its transition?

What’s interesting historically is that the Democrats’ biggest education reform initiative [Race to the Top] happened under very unusual circumstances. It was thrown into the stimulus that was passed just a few weeks into the Obama presidency, in the middle of a massive catastrophe and at the absolute peak of the administration’s political capital. The president threw into this giant measure, as a very small percentage of the overall cost, a grant-based reform to the states to incentivize them to implement education reform measures.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan attracted furious criticism from teachers’ unions during the Obama presidency. (Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)

When I went back and looked at the coverage of it in the national press, there were just tiny little details. So there really wasn’t time for opponents to mobilize against it — even though, if this had been a standalone measure that was introduced even a few months later, they would have gone to the mat to defeat it and probably succeeded. I also think that it was much more successful than even its advocates thought at the time. Certainly its critics didn’t realize how effective this would be at leveraging reform at the state level; it drove a lot of changes, and it took a while for those critics to say, “Wait a second, what’s going on here?” 

The problem was that Obama was deeply committed to this agenda, and the [teachers’] unions really didn’t have the leverage to go to war with him. If the unions had gone to their members and said, “The president is killing us — we’re going to support a primary challenger in 2012,” they would have lost more members than they would have hurt him. That was too risky, so the way they played it was to call on Obama to fire Arne Duncan, as if Duncan was running around implementing this reform agenda without Obama knowing anything about it. And when Arne Duncan decided to leave and Obama appointed another reformer, they decided they were against him too. The whole time, they had to keep up this pretense that these guys were acting against Obama’s wishes because they recognized that openly opposing Obama would have hurt them with their own members.

But when Obama left the scene, it gave the unions another opportunity to reset the playing field. They were pretty active in the 2020 primaries, trying to nail down all the candidates on commitments to their agenda, and they had somewhat more success there. The candidates who most strongly opposed reform — Warren and Sanders, and to a lesser extent Bill de Blasio, who was sort of making that his lane — didn’t win, but Biden was still much closer to their position than Obama.

I notice that we skipped over the 2016 election there, as well as the Trump presidency. But it really felt like those five years were the major pivot point.

That’s right. As harmful as Obama was to union organizing efforts, Trump was extremely helpful. 

The main goal of reform critics is to bracket together liberal reform with conservative reform — charter schools and vouchers, for example. Even though these are really different policies, they want them to be called the same thing: privatization. They don’t want to distinguish between those two ideas, and it’s their most successful rhetorical gambit. The fact that Obama was for charters but against vouchers was very difficult for them, but Trump allowed them to frame the terms exactly the way they wanted. So they really made a lot of headway during the Trump era, though they’re now in a somewhat different position under Biden.

I was just starting to look at the Biden administration’s new regulations on the Charter Schools Program, but that looks like a win for opponents of reform. It seems like they’re attaching a ton of red tape to make sure it’s as difficult as possible to access those funds. 

We’ve been expanding choice and using standards-based accountability for a few decades now, and there isn’t a great deal of evidence that student learning has dramatically improved since the beginning of the Great Recession. Do you think, even before Trump, there was a sense among Democratic elites that the gains we’ve seen since the ’90s just haven’t been worth the investment made?

It depends on what’s being invested. Federal spending is still such a tiny amount compared with the overall amount spent on education. To the extent that Democratic elites are thinking about a costly investment, it might be the investment they feel they made in reforms that have caused them significant damage with their own allies. From the standpoint of someone in Democratic politics who’s not primarily interested in education, they’re saying, “We’ve put ourselves behind these reforms and taken enormous blowback from within our base, so we need to measure the benefits of this reform against the very high price we’ve paid to do it.” Even if you’re getting some pretty good results for kids, it might not necessarily cost out as a good bet from that perspective. 

I wrote my big piece on this last year, and I focused on charters because I think that’s the area where the research has been most impressive. Initially, education reform really covered a lot of ground, and you’re right that the results have been kind of tepid in some of those areas. It is really hard to steer public education when so much of it is controlled in this fragmented way, and to have a national reform change something at the local level is so difficult. I think charters have been the bright spot. 

Granted, their effects have been really concentrated in one cohort — basically, non-white kids in cities. But that’s the biggest crisis in American education! It’s not the affluent suburban schools, not the middle-class areas, though you want those to be better. The inability to give non-white kids in urban schools anything like a decent education is the real crisis, and that’s where charters have made a big impact. So having a lot of success in that narrow area actually means quite a bit.

I’d like to go into the time machine one more time. Eleven years ago, right after the Act 10 reforms in Wisconsin, you wrote a piece arguing against Scott Walker and the whole effort to limit the collective bargaining power of public sector unions.

I’ve completely forgotten this!

It’s basically a defense of the necessity of teachers’ unions, including some hopes that they can be partners for reform in the future. In the kicker, you write that they “can’t hold off reform forever. And, after all the worst aspects of the tenure system disappear, education reformers will discover that teachers are their best allies.” Do you still hold that view? And do you still see teachers’ unions as necessary?

That’s a great question. I certainly expressed an optimistic view of where unions would go politically that has not borne out. They’re probably moving in the opposite direction. I guess you’d chalk it up to misplaced optimism.

Are teachers’ unions necessary? Let me put it this way: If I were designing my ideal world, they would exist. But given their political orientation, and the fact that so many of them are determined to put their efforts into defending the worst aspects of the system rather than pushing for more constructive changes, I would say no, I don’t think they are necessary. 

I’ve started to think of them more like police unions, which I consider the main problem in criminal justice. Police unions have just devoted so much of their efforts to protecting the worst, most abusive cops. You can imagine a world where police unions were on the side of reform, realized that it’s in the interest of police to be trusted by the communities they protect, and weeded out bad actors so that good cops don’t get the blowback that’s caused when abusive and racist officers mistreat people. But that’s not how they behave. 

So I think that busting up the police unions is probably the straightest line to getting to better criminal justice — and the straightest line to better education reform probably involves running over the teachers’ unions, at minimum. I would like to have a world where we can have teachers’ unions and better education reform, but the unions have made that really hard.

I actually wonder if the political influence of police unions can be compared to that of teachers’ unions. As both national and local actors, it seems like the latter are much more influential in election outcomes.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve seen plenty of examples where a mayor is trying to reform the police, and the police will just go all-out to sink that candidate. Police unions really put the fear of God into mayors and city council candidates who are trying to rein them in. I’m not sure they have the same power at the state and national level, but for the most part, that’s not where the criminal justice policy they’re most interested in gets decided. So they’ve got a lot of power.

That said, teachers’ unions have a power on the Left to define the way political activists think about the issue. That’s probably a case where there’s not an analogue on the Right. Conservative ideas about criminal justice and racism have their own sources, and you don’t really have police unions steering the Right toward those points of view. Whereas I feel like the role of teachers’ unions in setting the party line — by which I mean the progressive movement rather than the Democratic Party, but to some extent both — is very powerful.

In a recent column on education, you take issue with what you call a “false binary”: the idea that Democrats can either focus on improving schools or on improving the living conditions of students and families. I think many left-leaning critics of education reform would argue that Democrats can do both, but also that mitigating social disadvantage is going to make a much bigger impact on how kids learn than expanding high-quality charter schools, for instance. How do you respond to that?

I think there’s actually a lot of room for school improvement. To characterize it broadly, you’ve got these urban areas whose schools have performed very badly — kids have basically no chance to learn as much as kids in suburban schools — and charters are able to substantially or completely close that gap. They haven’t necessarily found ways to make the suburban schools better, but within the realm of improving education, charters have a significant effect.

I don’t really see anything to this argument, other than that education can only do so much. And that’s true. Education can only do so much, health care can only do so much, anti-poverty can only do so much, lead remediation can only do so much. Nothing is a panacea. But that’s just not a standard that we hold other policies to: Is this a panacea for all our problems? That’s a ridiculous standard. I know you’re trying to steel-man this and turn it into a serious idea, but I don’t think it is a serious idea. That’s not the way we do, or should, measure policy innovations.

Well, to carry the law enforcement comparison a step further, I don’t think advocates for criminal justice reform would argue that we just need to reduce poverty. There’s a definite sense that something affirmative has to change about the way our police operate.

That’s a very good analogy, and I wish I’d thought of that before. The disparities, whether it’s in education outcomes or incarceration, are going to be very hard to dent if you don’t get rid of poverty. But there are still disparities that we can address within the system itself. So we should do that! 

It’s just not a real excuse. No one makes that point about incarceration because they understand that it’s not relevant to the question of what kind of criminal justice system we want. It’s just not relevant.

Do you think there’s something about how the progressive movement views education — as a means of fighting social injustice and cultivating democratic values — that just doesn’t sync up with how most parents see it, and therefore creates a political problem?

I don’t actually think there is disagreement about those aspects of schools. There’s disagreement about the nature of civic values you want to teach: People on the Left want to teach liberal values, and people on the Right want to teach conservative values. People on the Right might have an image of the Pledge of Allegiance and teaching about the greatness of our country, and people on the Left might have ideas of teaching antiracism and creating a space where gay kids can come out if they don’t feel welcome at home.

But everyone really does see schools as a place to inculcate values. The real disagreement is about whether educational achievement is important. That’s where  you have a numerically tiny segment — much less than 10 percent, probably — of the country that doesn’t see educational achievement as something important. The absence of achievement as a priority is what makes them focus on the other stuff as representing the value of schools, because otherwise there’s no rationale for them to exist, and you’re just a straight-out libertarian who thinks we should get rid of public schools.

It certainly does seem like the public K-12 discourse now focuses way more on cultural politics than on academic performance. In particular, the state laws being passed about instruction on controversial subjects have just dominated the news for months. Do you think these bills are a valid response to politicized teaching, or is it more a political play by Republicans?

I genuinely don’t know. I’m almost certain that there’s more quote-unquote CRT in the classrooms now than there was five years ago. But I think it rose from a low level, and it’s really hard to say whether you’re talking about something that’s a serious concern. There are so many schools in this country that you could just cherry pick another new example every single day, and it still wouldn’t prove that there’s a real problem. 

You can see on Twitter that crazy teachers become national news stories now. My daughter had an absolute lunatic as a high school teacher who would use the class as a platform for all sorts of right-wing rants that were extremely racist and sexist. And this was not even a social studies class. This is a big country, and there’s a lot of crazy people out there.

But the legislative solutions just don’t work. I don’t think you can design a law that can effectively rule out bad teaching practices without also ruling out necessary teaching practices. So having state legislatures try to steer this ship is really not going to work.

When I spoke recently with the historian Daryl Scott, he essentially argued that the anti-CRT perspective in these debates wasn’t even especially right-wing — that it was more about explicitly teaching patriotic history in a way that would have been familiar to postwar liberals. I wonder if you’d agree with that.

There are definitely areas where the Left position has moved so far left that it’s opened up space for conservatives to advocate what used to be a center-left position. But I also think there are some aspects of the debate where that is not true. He’s capturing a piece of the reality, but not the whole of it.

What should the Democratic Party’s agenda on education be right now?

They should be encouraging more charter schools in urban areas, because they work. They’ve got an effective policy tool that can help people who need help very badly. They should be expanding that tool rather than scaling it back.

Writer Jonathan Chait recommends that national Democrats follow the teacher evaluation and compensation policies controversially implemented by Michelle Rhee. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

They should also be doing what Michelle Rhee did in D.C. They should say, “We are going to massively increase the base level of teacher pay in this country.” And they should go further than that, doubling or tripling aggregate teacher pay and treating teachers like professionals. Which means subjecting them to assessments that can include quantitative and non-quantitative judgments, and replacing them if they’re ineffective. I can’t really point to evidence that says that would work, but I don’t think it’s really been tried at scale. 

D.C.’s reforms worked, but all you can really do by increasing teacher pay is attract more and better teaching candidates from other cities. What a city can’t do is change the kind of person who goes into teaching in the first place. You can’t make it so that everyone in college knows that if you go into teaching, you’re going to make a really good living. College students know that if you go into teaching, compared with other things you could do, you’re making a financial sacrifice. If that were not the case, you’d have different people entering the profession and a bigger pool of talent. That’s not something I can improve with experimental evidence because it needs to be done at a societal level. But if I were in charge of the world, that’s what I’d do. 

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