Democratic political infighting over education pulls the rug out from under black families

The real bait and switch: Reformers’ selling school choice as justice

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

The U.S. Democratic political machine is in full gear this summer as special interest groups drive toward a common goal: Getting the party elected to the highest office in the land.

But the political action group Democrats for Education Reform has veered off the road, blasting negotiators who altered part of the 2016 Democratic Party platform in a nod to representatives who oppose charter schools and testing. (DFER called the changes “little more than a bait an switch,” and other like-minded reform groups followed suit.)

The “D” became silent in DFER when it shouted down the party platform. This strategic political act, showed to whom the group ultimately responds to, and please don’t say the children.

Related: Clinton looks to move Democrats away from ‘Education Wars’

I applaud those who take principled stands. One has to respect Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for his non-endorsement of Trump under the bright lights of the Republican National Convention. Nevertheless, the political consequences of his very private stance are substantial. Cruz dealt a mighty blow upon a wedge deeply implanted in the foundation of the GOP. His calculation may very well have been to split the party. Nevertheless, Cruz knew what he was doing when he walked on that stage.

There are similar forces at work in the Democratic Party. Education reform is both wedge and hammer. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools as well as the former Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education and current editor of Education Post respectively offered strong rebukes to the platform changes. Their respective promotions of certain reforms are not bound by party affiliation so no problem there.

But when “Democrats” is in the name, there’s a different expectation. The name assumes a willingness to work within the political process. If DFER can’t differentiate itself from other like-minded groups then it should simply be For Education Reform. How is attacking Clinton during this hour any different than a Republican?

“We bring criticism of the platform as a family member questions the misconduct of a fellow family member,” responds Shavar Jeffries, president of DFER. “We bring criticism to push the party to be true to the values it has embodied historically. Others may raise questions to undermine the forward progress of the party; we bring criticism to accelerate it.”

But shouldn’t the push be placed on President Obama, who really emboldened the movement, to use his bully pulpit.

When Democrats changed the platform, it was a political victory for those who repudiated the brand of reform that DFER promotes. The change was a result of real political work, and they are changes designed to get Hillary Clinton elected. Isn’t that the goal of a platform?

Check the last mid-term elections. Education reform was a liability for Democrats. But Republicans could lump vouchers and charters in a “choice” package in which Dems, because of their deep embrace of the term, have been unable to differentiate themselves from their Republican colleagues. In addition, Republican governors have been able to flip-flop on Common Core with little consequence from Democrats primarily because of the manner in which teachers and unions have been attacked.

DFER must find common ground with other Democrats – particularly teachers and unions – or the organization will always find itself criticizing the base, which is especially problematic in an election in which worker rights are in focus.

The inability of reform to engender the plurality of Democratic votes created the changes to the platform. Don’t blame unions. Blame an unspoken alliance with the GOP and deafness to black educators on issues of race, governance and social justice.

Take advice from black community members; there’s never been a bespoke platform created for us. Every presidential election can be argued to be a vote for the lesser of two evils. Black and brown voters have little choice but to get a Democrat elected and campaign thereafter because in recent times our alternatives were as viable as a Trump-Pence ticket.

Related: Democrats want to open more doors to college, but can their plan get more students to the finish line?

Presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton certainly deserves to be pushed publically on education. And she can be. Bernie Sanders effectively pushed Clinton up against the Convention walls. While Clinton already provided talking points on free college and health care, Sanders’ fingerprints are all over these positions within the Democratic platform.

But Sanders garnered significant votes and strength during the primary among people who support his policies. I respect the groundwork.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also influenced Hillary Clinton. BLM and its consciousness raising have demarcated clear policy lines around policing and criminal justice, influenced Clinton’s language and rallied Democrats.

The real bait and switch is reformers’ selling school choice as justice. Too few are buying.

The DFER statement won’t substitute for a ground game. It’s blaming outward rather than inward. The statement also represents the “my way or highway” tactic that base Democrats and Republicans are both tired of.

I’ll put my bias up front. I do not want to see Donald Trump elected. I especially don’t want Trump to be able to use Democrats’ rhetoric against Hillary Clinton as they are doing with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ language on trade. But DFER and other education reform groups have grown comfortable working with Republican leadership – in many cases they’ve thrived.

I’ve written before that black kids lose when Democratic ed reformers act like Republicans. The happenings and rhetoric at the RNC may have energized more black votes for Democrats than the Democratic primary process. In a twist of irony, Cruz may ultimately provide more value for Dems than for the GOP this election. I hope we don’t return the favor.

Pushing Hillary can wait until after she is elected.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.


Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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