Column

Black kids lose when Democratic ed reformers act like Republicans

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

NEW ORLEANS – Republicans are winning the support of black Americans. But don’t give the GOP too much credit. Democrats have themselves to thank. And poor, black schoolchildren have little to be thankful for at all.

Through the rhetoric of “choice,” “competition,” and “accountability,” the education-reform clique of the Democratic Party have been campaigning for Republicans since Obama arrived in office. Democratic education reformers have become parrots of the Republican Party, which has provided parents with more mediocre picks.

It’s not like Republicans are winning over black, brown and poor folks’ votes by providing quality options.

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The political gains for charter schools seemingly outpace their marginal educational benefits. Parents want more choices as demonstrated by rising enrollments for school vouchers. However, lackluster private schools that have been booted from the voucher program suggest political rather than educational payback. Schools that accept vouchers are not giving students better options – just more. As an example, most students in Wisconsin’s program already attended a private school. Republican states get away with subsidizing poor performing private and faith-based schools. (Public schools shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for wanting outcomes. It’s in the public interest for private schools to be accountable.)

There have been some gains, but the reform battology of choice, accountability and less government just resonate better with the Republican shtick. However, Democrats aren’t just sounding like Republicans; they’re acting like them.

Removing due process and gutting tenure have little to do with student outcomes. Yet, Democrats have now taken on this enduring industrialist cause. And parents do want and need more choices. But unions have responded to their pleas like the Party of No. Democrats have not articulated how they can create more quality, public options.

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So Republicans say ‘you shouldn’t have’ and take credit politically for the expansion of charter schools stimulated largely by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and I3 Grants. However, the GOP should take credit for the expansion of more mediocre goods after the last midterm elections in 2010. After which, states saw flimsy teacher evaluation systems and voucher programs grow in number and size.

President Barack Obama visits first grade students at Gen. Clarence Tinker elementary school at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama visits first grade students at Gen. Clarence Tinker elementary school at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Consequently, education reformers on both sides of the House really didn’t distinguish themselves in the 2014 midterm elections, but that’s evidently more of a problem for Dems. Republican governors won big, but not necessarily because of their education platforms. Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Nathan Deal (R-GA) can brag, but many winners from the GOP have since retreated from their hard line reform stands. Backing off Common Core helped Scott Walker (R-WI) and Rick Scott (R-FL) who both faced feverish union opposition. However, no Democrat owes a victory to education reform. If anything it was a liability in New York (Cuomo) and Louisiana (Landrieu) for Democrats.

Republicans can hold ed reform harmless. If we didn’t know before the ’14 midterms, we do now. Education reform for Democrats is more of a liability than a differentiator for 2016. Its 20/20 now, but using reform semantics gave the GOP free advertising.

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Either Democratic education reformers are reading from a Republican playbook or reform language is too easy for Republicans to manipulate to their advantage (neither is good for Dems). For instance from its Statement of Principles, the explicitly party-based organization Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) claims change is needed because “particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools.” DFER makes no reference to regressive tax policy and inequitable funding formulas that keep families poor and schools under-resourced – actually poverty keeps families trapped. Meanwhile, Bobby Jindal (R-LA) uses the same language to promote his voucher policy. Jindal regularly uses the same talking points to share how vouchers help “low-income kids that are trapped in failing schools.”

In fact, DFER’s What We Stand For and Statement of Principles is a Republican light education platform.

In addition, the attacks on unions by Democratic led or financed groups like StudentsFirst and Students Matter soured the campaign apparatus of Democratic Party. From a pragmatic perspective, unions put boots on the ground, contribute to television ads, and help candidates’ overall ground game. (Don’t parrot the romantic line that this is about adult power issues – as if votes don’t matter.) Democratic reformers’ stand against labor is simply bad long-term strategy for the Party. Most importantly, it’s not progressive.

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Remember back in the day before Bill Clinton was elected when being Democrat meant defending teachers and service workers? Remember when being a Democrat meant fighting rising income inequality because of corporate greed? There was a time when we didn’t isolate education from social justice. Remember when Democrats really fought for the 99 percent – the voters and children? Remember when progressivism was an assumed trait of being a Democrat. Remember?

Democratic education reformers certainly have forgotten.

Democrats shouldn’t be data driven educators; progressives should be community and family driven and use data to build their capacity. Democrats shouldn’t be all about the kids and fight labor to the point where poor communities lose the power of the collective. Even though Dems sound more and more like the GOP on education, let’s hope Democrats find their progressive souls don’t become the party of no; change is inherent in the name. But taking a progressive stand on education starts with refusing to be a ventriloquist doll for the Republican Party.

Enough with the platitudes; empower families, teachers and children.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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.

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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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