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Photo Credit: Getty Images

January 18, 2017

Conor Williams
Conor Williams

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.
Talking Points

.@ConorPWilliams: It’s easy to rationalize working with Trump on education but it may not be easy to do

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The day after last fall’s presidential election, it was truly bizarre to live at the heart of the country’s political establishment, in Washington, D.C., where Donald Trump finished with just 4 percent of the vote. November 9 kicked off a prolonged period of Beltway gloom; since then, even the sunny days are rainy here — each news cycle contributes another trickle of pessimism to the shower of anxieties.

These are dark, stormy days to be a progressive. It’s a particularly tough time for those of us who were proud members of the Barack Obama–Arne Duncan education coalition. President Obama governed as an aggressive education reformer, staking legacy claims on school choice, early education, teacher evaluation, academic standards and more. As the political currents sweep Trump into office, it’s time to ask: What’s next for progressive education reformers?

When criticized by others on the left for our support of charter schools or school accountability based on achievement, etc., we progressive reformers used to be able to point to Obama or other reformers like former Rep. George Miller (a Democrat from California) as proof that we were well within the realm of progressive thought. Buffeted by Trump’s electoral wave (and defections from conservative reformers), progressive reformers aren’t just drenched in despair. We’re ideologically homeless.

Well, here in this elite coastal swamp, most of the education policy analysts are some stripe of Democrat, and what Republicans we have ... are #NeverTrump. But for some of these stalwart conservatives, the dismal electoral floodwaters are starting to recede. Things are starting to dry out. It’s starting to feel like that old Bible verse (Song of Solomon 2:11–12): “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come.”

As the prospect of unified GOP control of the federal government roars into view, some of those Republicans are discovering that, hey, the orange guy might just have the juice they need to push through a reform priority or two. As my New America colleague Kevin Carey has put it,

conservatives and Republicans in Washington, D.C., who, after eight years out of power and for reasons that range from wishful thinking to much worse, are busily convincing themselves that Donald Trump is redeemable. He is not. His bigotry is bone-deep.

Indeed, après le deluge de Trump, some conservative education reformers have started feeling out the center and left of what remains of the education reform movement to ask us to swallow our concerns and work with the incoming administration “for the kids.”

I asked Shavar Jeffries, president of the Democrats for Education Reform (a key progressive reform organization) about the dynamics of this situation. He explained them this way: “We think that just because we strongly disagree with the president-elect on a variety of different policies and the rhetoric undergirding those policies, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a number of policies that we agree with and would benefit the families that we advocate for...even if it’s one issue, even if it’s one out of a hundred, we’re gonna work to ensure that it’s positive going forward.”

Other progressive reformers agree. Ned Stanley, deputy director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, emailed me, “For the reformers I know, their focus in education has little to do with conservatism or progressivism and the policies they advocate for can’t be cleanly placed into Democratic or Republican thought silos ... Which is to say, the question we’re asking is how a dramatically larger number of students can have access to significantly greater options and opportunity in their lives. That’s a moral question, but not necessarily a political one.”

And the political question behind that moral one is relatively manageable: Why shouldn’t progressives who believe in school choice sign up to back a hypothetical Trump administration proposal to dramatically expand it?

Well, “do it for the kids” is a much more complicated ask than it seems. First of all, most of the old education reform priorities that commanded bipartisan support are big, hairy ideas that spark disagreements in the details. For instance, school choice is not a panacea. Well-crafted choice programs can open doors of opportunity for underserved children. But these are hardly inevitable. Badly designed choice programs with limited oversight generally do nothing for the students they serve. Though it’s a fool’s errand to predict Trump’s plans, it’s fair to say that his team has given no signals that it’s interested in building oversight and accountability into its school choice proposals.

Sure, that’s a garden-variety challenge of working across party lines. In Washington, policy wins come at the price of ideological priorities. For instance, in order to secure conservative support for Obama’s signature health care reform law, progressives needed to adopt long-standing conservative policy ideas — like the individual mandate.

OK, bad example.

But you get the drift — even if the Trump administration’s approach to school choice (or school accountability, or teacher evaluations, or etc.) isn’t ideal, progressive reformers will have to weigh any possible benefits against those costs. At present, there’s little evidence to suggest that Trump-branded reform proposals will be even vaguely tempting to progressive reformers animated by equity and accountability.

Of course, standard-issue bipartisan trade-offs aren’t the only challenge. Trump poses a second challenge for progressive reformers who believe in the promise of charter schools but also work on issues proximate to immigration or civil rights. Consider this relatively likely scenario: the Trump administration moves forward with its regularly reiterated plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and begins proceedings to close the border to Muslims. Meanwhile, his Department of Education announces plans to establish a large federal grants competition with billions of dollars available to states who expand their charter school sectors. For the purposes of argument, however unlikely it might be, let’s assume that the grants competition includes significant accountability measures that would increase the chance that the program helps underserved children.

Progressive education reformers eager to have more high-quality school options available for these kids would clearly be tempted to support such a proposal. And yet, any engagement on this would also be a tacit normalization of the extraordinary damage that Trump’s immigration proposals are likely to do to U.S. politics, governance and civil society. Civil rights organizations sympathetic to education reform would be understandably confused to find progressive allies denouncing Trump’s radical immigration policies while assisting his administration’s work on education. Is it worth it to move a few education reform priorities if those efforts permanently cost progressive reformers their existing networks of allies and supporters? Are short-term reform goals worth that sort of long-term detonation of political capital?

“Trump has acted in a whole variety of bigoted ways,” says Jeffries. “It makes it much harder for people to work with him. A great many of his policies — not only his rhetoric — are xenophobic, are Islamophobic ... he’s said things that are misogynistic, that are racially insensitive, and that makes it hard to work with him.”

Or, to put it another way — this wouldn’t really be garden-variety bipartisan policymaking. Trump is different from the usual, as most of D.C.’s conservative education reformers admitted when they proclaimed themselves #NeverTrump fellow-travelers. They shouldn’t be surprised if progressive reformers balk at helping Trump’s abhorrent behavior soak into American politics and governance.

The Song of Solomon verse continues beyond the pastoral rhapsody I quoted above, announcing that, in the season of change, “... the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” Odd as that sounds to 21st-century American ears, this biblical “turtle” is really a turtledove, a symbol of peace, tolerance and friendship. As the raging Trumpstorm approaches the White House, conservatives hoping to re-establish comity among the education reform movement might remember that this moment of rebirth is being heralded by the voice of a much less gracious creature.