Wait. Did Education Reform Just Become Inescapable?

If the idea of giving local school leaders more room to innovate while holding them accountable for academic improvement sounds familiar, it should.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74/Getty Images

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The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin published a piece not that long ago arguing that Democrats have an opportunity on K-12 issues: 

“Democrats would be wise to reclaim the issue of K-12 education, starting with a recognition that the United States has long been falling behind international competitors and suffered another blow with COVID. They might consider a multipronged approach at both the state and federal levels.”

Rubin’s argument is intuitive: there’s ample evidence that the pandemic left U.S. kids academically and socially reeling. There’s also proof that American families are worried about their kids’ well-being and academic progress. 

As kids struggle, as parents and caregivers fret, some prominent conservatives are currently exploring whether public schools can be meaningfully improved if we give enough families public vouchers for private schools and/or if we can figure out precisely which books to ban. These are not serious responses to the problems — and anxieties — most American families face. Democrats would benefit if they offered something more substantive than this low bar. 

But what? Rubin suggests a three-pronged framework. Democrats should: 

  1. Push for significant education funding increases 
  2. Pay teachers better and hold teacher-candidates in training to higher standards 
  3. Decentralize more decision-making authority to school districts who are willing to draft innovative plans for reaching “the goal of educational excellence, mastery of subject matter and parental satisfaction.”

It’s a reasonable starting point. Education funding increases improve public schools. Teacher pay is low, relative to other professions requiring extensive credentialing, and it hasn’t increased enough to keep pace with inflation. U.S. teacher training programs are not particularly effective, particularly when it comes to preparing candidates to teach students to read

The educational benefits of decentralization are less obvious: U.S. history is pretty clear that local control of schools often sustains inequities and fosters civil rights abuses. Absent top-down pressure to focus on equity, local (and state) decisionmakers regularly default to decisions that are convenient, comfortable and bad for historically marginalized communities

Funding inequities generally thrive under decentralization. The erosion of federal pressure to integrate schools gave local authorities room to resegregate schools through housing policies, gerrymandered enrollment zones and other surreptitious changes. Combine these trends, and it’s easy to see how funding inequities are systemically racialized—it’s easier to underfund children of color’s educational opportunities when Black and brown children have been concentrated into segregated campuses. 

Still, there’s some promise in a governance approach along the lines that Rubin suggests: giving local authorities more room to innovate on process while holding them accountable for showing evidence of academic improvement. 

But wait. Does that idea sound familiar? It should. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s first secretary of education, famously described his reform strategy as “tight on goals, loose on means.” This “tight-loose” approach is also a key facet of the public charter school model and it’s delivered some real improvements for kids

This is the trouble with the opportunity that Rubin outlines: her “new” education platform for Democrats sounds an awful lot like the (again, constantly dying) education reform movement. The playbook sounds a whole lot like Duncan’s old reform one: more funding with tighter goals and more flexibility for how schools and districts reach them. 

Same goes for Rubin’s push to raise teacher pay and standards—that’s an echo of core reform initiatives like former DC Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s effort to reshape the capital’s teaching force. And the reformers over at the National Council on Teacher Quality have been pushing to improve teacher preparation programs for years. 

Say it plain: that’s why Democrats will struggle to retake command of K–12 education as a political issue. Even though education reform is politically stalled after a decade of criticism —and the utterly toxic embrace of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump — there’s no alternative, actionable progressive slate of ideas to improve schools. 

It’s true that Democratic policymakers have some education policy ideas. California and other blue places have launched models for community schools offering “wraparound” social services like health, nutrition, dental and career-training services. Early education investments like universal pre-K remain popular with progressives (and several conservatives). 

But none of these progressive ideas provide a theory of action to address unfairness and dysfunction in K–12 schools. They’re all “Very Good Things” with solid evidentiary support from prior studies (and support from reformers like Duncan and Rhee, incidentally). They just don’t address the core challenge of improving — you might even say, “reforming”— the foundations of elementary and secondary education in the United States. 

Why is this so difficult? It’s partly because reform’s ideas aren’t as substantively useless as their political unpopularity suggests. For all the angry discourse about standardized tests, for instance, they generate data that protect students’ civil rights and provide key proof points for lawsuits identifying how states’ or districts’ school funding choices harm families of color. 

The real reason that progressives can’t quit reform, though, is that we haven’t yet figured out how to dissolve a core tension in our public education thinking. On the one hand, progressives have grown — correctly — suspicious of the structural biases built into public systems. On the other hand, progressives are prone to waxing nostalgic about the fragile, diminishing greatness of American public schools. Many of us tend to imagine that this system was, at some point before No Child Left Behind or Teach For America or the Reagan administration, etc., a shining exemplar of democratic investment in fairness and social mobility. 

This tension makes progressives stalwart defenders of public education as a concept, so much so that we generally resist efforts to substantially overhaul its governance as “attacks on public education.” But it’s also clear that the long history of American public education is saturated with examples of schools replicating and amplifying social inequities. Some of the most sacred elements of American public education have reliably served as toxic firewalls against progress towards racial justice in the United States. 

To move beyond education reform, progressives need to face this uncomfortable incoherence in our thinking. Our post-reform public education platform can’t just be about adding grades in the early years and enveloping K–12 schools with more social services. Sure, public schools could use deeper resources and broader systems of support. But many of the central mechanisms of the K–12 system are themselves unfair against communities of color, low-income families, linguistically diverse children and other historically marginalized groups. Schools won’t serve those students better without being made to do so. 

If Democrats want the political benefits of credibility on public education, they need to center, and solve for, those inequities. And if their best proposals for doing so keep circling back to education reform ideas, perhaps that’s a hint that they abandoned that movement too early. 

Dr. Conor P. Williams is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a partner at the Children’s Equity Project. He is also a working father with three kids. These views are his alone, and are not necessarily shared by his employers—or his kids.

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