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education and politics
Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, speaks as Hillary Rodham Clinton looks on during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. Credit: AP Photo/John Locher

Schools of all types have failed black and brown students as well as families in poverty and we need a president devoted to equity, accountability and achievement.

So why are Democratic presidential candidates backing off education reform?

During the most recent Democratic presidential debate, not one candidate pushed a position of any substance on elementary and secondary education.

Their silence says a lot.

It’s politically smart for Democrats to avoid family feuds. They are taking full advantage of a fractured Republican Party, and they certainly don’t want to split Democrats because of differing views on education.

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An aspiring nominee must unify the diversity within the base, and education won’t provide the political glue for the Democratic party – Republican dysfunction is providing that.

“Schools of all types have failed black and brown students as well as families in poverty and we need a president devoted to equity, accountability and achievement. So why are Democratic presidential candidates backing off education reform?”

Education only became a problem for Dems because the Obama administration put on the reformer cape. The administration’s use of Race to the Top and I3 grants to push ideology over enforcement solidified that identity.

This is an unfortunate situation.

Saying you’re pro-charter doesn’t make you progressive, innovative or a Democrat. Charter schools simply institute changes in governance. It’s what you do with a charter that distinguishes your party lines. Actually, a walk in most charter schools feel like a walk in a traditional public school.

Nevertheless, the ambiguity is what makes reform a hot potato.

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There are simply too many reformers who offend Democratic party principles for reform to be Democratic. The next president doesn’t have to be a loyalist to charter or traditional school. The next president must represent his or her party and find ways to force states to deliver good schools to underserved communities.

Dems must focus on holding states as well as universities accountable within the confines of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act. Let states get in the weeds of school delivery and consequently the arguments around them.

A look at Louisiana

Louisiana politics illustrate why it’s difficult for a president to be a cheerleader for any particular belief system.

Many Democrats in the state who consider themselves reformers stood silent politically on women’s issues, housing, criminal justice, poverty, health care and other issues central to the party because they were aligned to a Republican education agenda which included charters, vouchers and choice.

Democrats’ silence in the state emboldened Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s run for President of the United States. In addition, big fish Democrats have to swim and adapt to Louisiana’s conservative waters, which wear down progressive principles like coastal erosion. They’re reasons why Louisiana Democrats switch out the party like a stained suit coat. Wearing a reformer identity and being a single-issue voter around education reform simply doesn’t help the Party. And by the way, black and brown folk need Democrats to act like Democrats.

If Jindal taught us anything during his tenure, it’s that loyalty should be based on the ability to deliver for constituents and the party. By not focusing on the former, Jindal really did neither.

Related: Opinion Why new Senate ed bill falls short of LBJ’s “War on Poverty” standard

Democratic presidential candidates should take heed. Politicos shouldn’t show loyalty to the idea of reform or to being against it (Jindal actually did both).

Those up for the highest office must demonstrate how education policy can bring democracy to its citizens.

Consequently, citizens deserve to hear their plans for education. However for the sake of the party, they have to be bigger than any one interest group – particularly education reform.

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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