Strange Bedfellows

09.14.12

Democrats for Education Reform? Why Policy Fault Lines Are Shifting

The Chicago teachers’ strike continues, and schools there are failing. But policy fault lines are finally beginning to shift. Why education reform is getting a new consensus.

“On this issue and this day we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.” So said Paul Ryan at the outset of the Chicago’s teacher strike this week. 

Now in its fourth day, the Chicago strike affects 350,000 kids. It occurred despite an offer by Mayor Emanuel to support a 16 percent pay raise over four years—on top of an average $76,000 teacher salary—despite the city facing a $1 billion budget deficit. In exchange, educators would need to accept teacher evaluations and principals’ discretion over hiring and firing. The union rejected the deal.

Sometimes policy, not just politics, makes strange bedfellows and Paul Ryan’s status as a charter member of the Republicans for Rahm fan club shouldn’t distract from perhaps an even more surprising dynamic—the growing number of Democrats who are standing up for education reform.

The courage, of course, comes from the fact that the Teachers Union is one of the most influential special interests in the Democratic Party, power brokers capable of derailing careers with organized opposition in closed partisan primaries—just ask former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, an education reformer who had $1 million spent against him in 2010 and lost to the union-backed (and now corruption-plagued) Mayor Vincent Gray.

In the 2008 election cycle, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers spent a combined $71.7 million on candidates and issue campaigns, outspending the next largest public sector union by a 2 to 1 margin

This year in New York City, the teachers’  union has donated at least a quarter of a million dollars to local politicians who pledged not to support Mayor Bloomberg-backed reforms or accept donations from StudentsFirst, an advocacy organization founded by former Washington, DC, schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee, incidentally, is a Democrat. Her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, is also a Democrat who supports education reforms, from charter schools to school choice. 

This year, Mayor Johnson and colleagues in the U.S. Conference of Mayors backed an impressive array of education reforms including teacher evaluations, charter schools, and “parent trigger” policies, which would give parents the ability to push for intervention in chronically failing schools. Among his fellow Democratic mayors who backed the measures:  Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Detroit Mayor David Bing and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker has gone even farther, supporting school choice—the ability for poor parents in underperforming school districts to receive a voucher to apply toward a private- or parochial-school education. Booker has worked productively with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the education-reform front—a rare and welcome cross-aisle collaboration on a cutting-edge reform.

The reason so many Democratic mayors are embracing politically risky education reforms is not a mystery—it is a matter of practical necessity.  The status quo isn’t working. In Chicago, 40 percent of high school students drop out before graduation and 80 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in reading or math. Mayors—more than members of Congress—are hired to be problem-solvers. They have direct responsibilities for their budget that tends to make them elevate fiscal responsibility over ideology.

As growing number of Democratic governors are embracing education reform as well. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—who has been effective in gaining concessions from unions to balance the budget without raising taxes—is a proponent of teacher evaluations and charter schools. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy pushed for teacher evaluations and expanding charter schools and, against the strenuous objections from unions, received unexpected support from the Black and Puerto Rican legislative caucus to get the reforms enacted.  Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley—both former big city mayors—have backed teacher evaluations. 

The reason so many Democratic mayors are embracing politically risky education reforms is not a mystery—it is a matter of practical necessity.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick successfully tied teacher tenure to teacher evaluation, while doubling the percentage of students in failing school districts who could attend charter schools.  “I consider him a role model in terms of how to lead in a way that is bold and purposeful but also respectful and collaborative,” says Jonah Edelman, the CEO of Stand for Children, a leading education-reform-advocacy organization.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan—a former Chicago Schools superintendent—have actually accumulated a fairly impressive education-reform record, using their Race to the Top funding contest to encourage states to push through needed reforms. They have also backed contentious but needed initiatives like merit pay and ending teacher tenure for failing teachers as well.  On the negative side of the ledger, the Obama administration sat and watched as the Washington pilot school-voucher program was defunded by the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2009.  Compared to Democratic predecessors, education has been an area where the Obama administration has been willing to stand up to their base, but there are practical limits, especially in an election year, which is why the Obama campaign must be viewing the Chicago strike with some displeasure.  

While the president has been officially silent on the topic, Mayor Emanuel suggested to reporters that President Obama supported him, saying “I want you to understand, the president has weighed in… Every issue we’re talking about regarding accountability of our schools, quality in our schools to the education of our children, is the core thrust of Race to the Top.”

Mitt Romney actually gave one of the best and most substantive speeches of his campaign on the subject of education reform, calling it “the civil-rights issue of our era.”  It is an issue where Republicans have more political flexibility than Democrats to seize the policy high ground and embrace cutting-edge reforms. 

While union rhetoric against education reform can be harsh and intentionally intimidating, watch a documentary like Waiting for Superman—directed by Democrat Davis Guggenheim—to get a sense of the moral dimensions of this struggle.  Listen to someone like Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone to get a sense of the stakes and you’ll quickly start to see that this shouldn’t be seen as an issue of right versus left as much as it is a matter of right versus wrong.

Whatever the results of this teachers’  strike in Chicago—and there are hopes that it may be settled soon—there are signs the policy fault lines are starting to shift, creating the opportunity for cross-aisle collaboration and a new consensus.  Being pro-teacher is not necessarily the same thing as being pro-union—and in the pursuit of improved education results, partisan politics should always take a back seat to putting kids first.