It’s one thing to disavow President-elect Donald Trump. It’s another to rally against his policies, which we assume will be what his nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has endorsed in the past. It’s too easy to call Trump a racist, bigot, xenophobe and a white supremacist as evidence of one’s dissent.
The real question is, to what extent will Democrats who promote charter schools but disagree with Trump in other ways force limitations on school choice?
“We congratulate her [Betsy DeVos] on being nominated for Secretary of Education, and we look forward to working with her,” said Louisiana State Superintendent John White after the news broke of DeVos’ nomination. White offered boilerplate language for Democrats in education reform.
Playing the politics of niceness has never been so convenient for the Dems of education reform. DeVos’s belief in limited state oversight, for-profit charter management and vouchers didn’t give Democrat proponents of charter schools any pause in the past. And for many it doesn’t now.
As the chief architect of education reform in Michigan, DeVos should take blame for doing no favors to struggling public schools in Detroit and the rest of the state. Michigan is a prime example of what not to do in education reform. Her failing creation of a wide-open market is a case study in why there should be limits on school choice.
However, the inability of reform-leaning Democrats to renounce DeVos and her policies in the past reveals a complicity in her nomination. Authentic Democratic notions of accountability simply don’t jibe with Republican ideals of choice. You also don’t have to be cozy with your opponents to accomplish your policy goals. But for the reward of charter schools, certain Democrats have abandoned their party’s principles and muzzled their opposition to Republican policies in education and beyond.
Young people don’t live wholly in schools; they live in communities. If Democrat reformers want children to live in nurturing communities and not just charter schools, they must move beyond myopic quid pro quo politics. Democrats can no longer afford to wittingly miss the forest for the charter school trees.
I look forward to Democrats divorcing themselves from a relationship of convenience with Republicans, who have elevated what a school choice proponent really looks like in DeVos. Real dissent from Democrats should equate to aggressively limiting DeVos’s policies, which have included restricting state oversight, promoting for-profit charter management organizations and encouraging vouchers for private schools including those that are faith-based.
Philosophically, Democrats shouldn’t believe in this kind of school choice.
Democrats have historically opposed vouchers. There will be some hand-wringing from Democrat reformers around the merits of for-profit charter schools and how to hold all charters accountable, but this will probably be more performance art than anything else.
Democratic leaders’ acceptance of DeVos funding across the country proves all of the aforementioned issues to be minor. The rallying call for school choice created a kind of education party, which Democratic reformers are loyal to and in which DeVos has found refuge.
The courting of noted Democratic reformers Michelle Rhee and Eva Moskowitz for the Education Secretary position was a political middle finger to Democrats. It highlighted how distant reformers and the rest of the Democratic Party are from each other.
The tolerance that Dems have extended to the unwaveringly Republican DeVos isn’t offered to labor unions or proponents of neighborhood schools. Don’t expect DeVos to compromise for Democrats. DeVos doesn’t have to be loyal to the reform party. The roots of choice movement come from a Republican tree.
If Democrats really want to take back the White House, they have to question whether charter schools fit too neatly in a Republican agenda for them to help Democrats politically. There’s a great deal of romanticism around doing “what’s best for the kids” to work across the aisle.
For Democrats, that “bipartisanship” contributed to a political deaf-and-dumbness throughout political systems that produced other policies that Democrats should have strongly resisted. While charter advocates could easily be heard in statehouses demanding charter school expansion throughout the Obama era, their silence on the rest of the Republican agenda was a compromise that clearly favored Republicans’ long-range plans.
All one has to do is look in my home state of Louisiana as an example.
It’s not a coincidence that Republican/conservative policies ruled the deep red state of Louisiana during the same period that charters and vouchers expanded from New Orleans to the rest of the state. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal toed the GOP line and Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge.
In 2007, Jindal eliminated revenue by repealing the “Stelly Tax” plan and cutting taxes for the wealthiest Louisiana residents. As discretionary items in the budget, higher education and health care absorbed shortfalls. Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicare put thousands of children at risk.
And for all the applause for education reform as it pertains to charters or test scores in New Orleans, you also have the city of Baton Rouge, where schools haven’t shown comparable growth and in some cases have worsened students’ learning opportunities. And Jindal expanded a flailing voucher program that charter advocates should strongly denounce.
Yet Democrats who consider themselves reformers stood silent on these issues; hey, “charter schools are working,” they say.
With the nomination of DeVos to be U.S. Secretary of Education, I don’t expect that practice of endorsement through silence to end. The reason why charter schools have expanded in some states comes from a quid pro quo calculus of being silent on other issues.
Will Democrats fight voucher policies, which have been shown to be largely ineffective, and harmful in some cases, to an extent that makes the Secretary uncomfortable? Will they push for the kind of accountability that would put a moratorium on the loose and deleterious system of charters in DeVos’s home state of Michigan?
A Republican mega-donor, DeVos is a metaphor for the many conservative donors that have essentially given hush money to Democrats. It’s a great deal for people like DeVos who get a lot more than charter schools – the nomination is chief among the spoils.
Calling Trump names won’t bring educational justice or improve school quality. Democrats must file dissent in the form of policies that are consistent with their values.
Democratic reformers have to form alliances with other Democratic groups – even the ones they may not agree with. But Democrats have to stop acting like Trump’s election is the worst thing for America when they’ve already co-signed his policies and his nominee for secretary of education.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.