Is school reform progressive?

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At its core, to be “progressive” is to fight for the little guy against powerful forces of self-interest.

Whether the little guy was a Kansas farmer whose earnings were manipulated by commodities traders in Chicago, a woman denied the right to vote, an underpaid working man seeking union representation, blacks oppressed by segregation, or a low-level civil servant forced to pay homage to a powerful political machine, progressives made them their cause.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham

In education, the little guy was historically the teacher and over the years, many progressive reforms were adopted to serve and protect teachers: higher pay, health care and retirement benefits, tenure, seniority and professional development.

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Along the way, however, we also realized there was an even littler guy than the teacher in need of protection – the student. The Supreme Court recognized this in 1954 and ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional.

Congress recognized it in the 1960’s by passing a law providing federal funds to counter inequitable state and local funding for low-income students. Congress went further in the 1970’s when they passed a law to protect students with disabilities.

By the 1990’s there was a serious call for higher standards and more ambitious achievement goals. And then in the 2000’s we passed a law mandating accountability – all to protect the littlest guy of all – the student.

Today, that law, for all its flaws, still stands. It’s been amended by the current administration through executive action, but the essence remains: accountability to protect the little guy.

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Recently, education professor Andre Perry suggested that some reforms are at odds with the progressive traditions of the Democratic Party. Citing outcomes from the recent midterm elections, he writes, “No Democrat owes a victory to education reform.”

Perhaps, though several pro-reform Democrats will keep or occupy governor’s mansions in January, including John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Andrew Cuomo in New York, Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island, and Dannel Malloy in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, Democratic losses in traditionally blue states of Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland can hardly be blamed on their support for education reform.

In any case, Perry’s argument is that the reform agenda – public charter schools, accountability and competitive grant programs – is essentially a Republican agenda that puts the Democratic party at war with its base – specifically teacher unions.

First of all, this argument overlooks obvious areas of agreement among reformers and unions. For example, most reformers join teachers in supporting more funding.

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It’s worth remembering that the pro-reform Obama administration provided nearly $60 billion to save some 400,000 teaching jobs during the recession. This money came with no strings attached and dwarfed the administration’s “reform” initiatives.

Both national unions support higher standards. Both national teacher unions and some state and local affiliates also embraced competitive grant reforms they now oppose, including teacher evaluations based in part on student achievement, and interventions for low-performing schools. Even on issues like merit pay, some unions agreed to pilot programs that factor performance into compensation.

That is not to suggest unions are hypocrites for changing their positions but merely to point out that unions and reformers were not always at odds on these issues and neither are monolithic in their views.

Perry also singles out the tenure issue as an example where unions and reformers differ, but it warrants a little nuance. Some people conflate reforming and abolishing tenure, but most reformers, including the people behind the lawsuits in California and New York, are simply for raising the bar on tenure, not eliminating it.

So the real open question is, who are the real progressives?

Are they the ones protecting educational jobs for teachers or the ones trying to improve educational outcomes for children? Are they the ones insisting that better education cannot overcome the effects of poverty or the ones insisting that it must?

Are they the ones insisting that traditional public schools are the only option for kids or the ones fighting to give low-income parents more options?

Polls show strong support for choice among minorities and Perry concedes as much, citing a survey from the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

Perry then takes to task the teacher unions for resisting choice but then inexplicably criticizes Democrats because, “They have not articulated how they can create more quality, public options.”

This is especially baffling, given that he credits the Obama administration for expanding charter schools. He could review New York Governor Cuomo’s speech in Albany last winter before a crowd of thousands of pro-charter parents. There are countless other examples of pro-charter Democrats at every level of government.

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Perry goes on to say that, “Democratic reformers’ stand against labor is simply bad long-term strategy for the Party. Most importantly, it’s not progressive.”

Given that Education Post’s parent poll shows broad support for high standards, accountability and choice among minorities who now make up the majority of public school students, I argue that reformers’ stands against unions are less the problem for Democrats than the unions’ stand against reform.

Insofar as it’s students – the littlest guys of all – who are most at risk from low standards, weak accountability and the lack of better educational options, knee-jerk opposition to reform is definitely not progressive.

Whether Democrats can marry the reform agenda to its traditional labor base depends both on whether reformers can rein in some of their excesses like over-testing and low-quality charters and whether teacher unions are willing to change from an industrial-style union to a self-regulating professional organization.

Either way, parents won’t wait forever for better schools and the political party that delivers them has a promising future.

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit supporting individuals and organizations working to improve public education, and a former Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education (2009-2012).

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