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The Second Coming of Ed Reform
A strange death, a broken center, and a faction to prevail in the far-left’s war on learning and winning.
Revisiting the education reform debates of the 2010’s feels like seeing Michelle Obama holding George Bush. The characters were complex. It often seemed contentious. But hoo boy that was a healthier time.
In “The Strange Death of Education Reform”, Matthew Yglesias explains how ed reform’s bipartisan consensus fell apart, and then fell out of the political headlines. In the process, he shows how the arc of K-12 education reform is intertwined with the fate of centrist politics.
The first of his four-part series opens by arguing that “many of the contemporary woke wars emerged from these once-intense, now-forgotten battlegrounds”. From the strategy and tactics to funding sources and foot soldier recruitment, the intra-party battles over education in the Bush-Obama years served as a petri dish for the chaos and culture wars of the Trump years.
But he only hints at the real takeaway. Those battles also show how centrists can again return to power.
Far-Left Faction Fueled by K-12
Most of the Yglesias series is an explainer of what happened and why, including the theory that Obama and other centrists overhyped what schools can do — a case well-rebutted by Chad Aldeman in Good schools (still) matter for low-income kids.
Yglesias does close his fourth and most recent installment with a section offering a forward-looking popularism message, invoking Denver’s troubles with school safety as an example of why “you need to care about normal people too.”
But this call to action is far more direct in Jonathan Chait’s missive from 2021, titled Democrats Must Defeat the Left’s War on Educational Achievement, which connects the growing power of education reform opponents to the ascendance of far-left activism that has doomed Democrats in swing districts:
"If Democrats care about social mobility and winning elections, they need to recognize that an important faction within their own party has a program that is inimical to both goals and fight as hard as they can to keep them out of power."
The word “faction” is important. Opposition to Obama-era education reforms not only galvanized opposition to specific education policies, but focused resources and energy within a growing far-left faction anchored by the largest and most-resourced organization within the Democratic ecosystem. Teachers unions not only have millions of members and hundreds of millions of dollars in predictable annual revenue, but staff made up almost entirely of the left’s Achilles heel: highly educated whites paid to influence the Democratic Party.
In the words of former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, “when you have unions that have other aspirations beyond being a union, and maybe being something akin to a political party, then there’s always going to be conflict.”
Education reform rode into the 2000s on a wave of bipartisanship driven by strong, pragmatic factions in both parties. Its opponents on the left responded by building a political faction in the 2010s to beat back not only commonsense education policy, but all compromise.
We now live in that chaos. Getting out of it will require a sustained investment in partisan, centrist factions.
The far-left and far-right have already built such networks. In “The Future is Faction,” Steve Teles and Robert Saldin of the Niskanen Center articulate our current reality of highly organized political factions on the extremes, and call on centrists to build their own. Writing in National Affairs, they propose the tactical path forward:
… activists, donors, and intellectuals alienated by the polarized direction of their respective parties will need to redirect their activity toward finding a base of support to mobilize and creating organizations to facilitate their pursuit of power. In places where their respective national parties are weak, these moderate factions will have an opportunity to establish a power base for intra-party conflict. They will need to form new coalitions of elected officials — along the lines of what the Democratic Leadership Council established in the 1980s — to create a political identity distinct from that of the national parties for aspiring officeholders.
From Campus to the Real World with Optimism & Patriotism
Investments in building a coherent identity must take many forms, and lessons can be found in both the education reformers of the Bush-Obama years and the leftists ascendent over the past half-decade.
Take the approach to harnessing the energy of recent college graduates, which played a major role in powering both the rise of education reform in the 2000s and the current far-left faction that is dooming Democrats.
The differences between those campus origins epitomize the challenge facing moderate Democrats today, and the opportunity for renewal.
Education reform was fueled by a call that was optimistic, patriotic, and required intense engagement with the messiness of the real world.
In 1989, Princeton University senior Wendy Kopp published a thesis titled “An Argument and Plan for the Creation of the Teachers Corps”. Kopp’s thesis formed the foundation of Teach for America (TFA), a two-year national service program placing recent college graduates in low-income school districts. Within a decade, TFA alumni had infiltrated policy, politics, and philanthropy. Many founded the entrepreneurial ventures that defined Bush-Obama education reform, most prominently charter school networks like KIPP.
The most vocal and influential education reform advocates were often TFA alums whose journey was marked by optimism (they could make a difference), sacrifice (by choosing classrooms over corporations), and patriotism (For America!). Their journeys from elite campuses to the highest echelons of government, policy, and business were punctuated by a two-year crash course — what would now be called “lived experience” — mired in the complexities of bureaucracies, families, and society.
A Climate Change on Campus
More than a quarter-century after TFA’s founding, a group of entrepreneurial students at Wesleyan University started the Sunrise Movement. While TFA’s campus-to-reformer pipeline required years of direct experience in schools before launching startups, the Sunrise Movement skipped the service years and brought an uncompromising and disruptive brand of Ivory Tower progressivism from college campuses across the country straight to the halls of power.
Activists, according to Saul Alinsky, are supposed to “start from where the world is, as it is” and work from there to improve it. But the architects of the Sunrise Movement and the recent wave of leftist activism thought they found a shortcut. Along with dozens of other nonprofits collectively referred to as “The Groups”, they have formed “an albatross around the Party’s neck,” dragging Democrats down among mainstream voters.
Sunrise and its partners pushed for a maximalist policy agenda advanced by a handful of ideologically pure political leaders. Their political champions represent the most Democratic districts in the country and tout views and policy stances that are far out of line with the median voter. They can afford to take huge risks and act disruptively (sometimes in ways that harm the Democratic Party’s ability to sustain a majority) because they are unlikely to face an electoral penalty for their actions in deep blue districts.
The new progressive left did not have to face the complex reality of a classroom —or a swing district. There were no long campaigns in GOP-held districts meeting voters where they are (an experience political scientists have shown makes activists more moderate). And there was certainly no flipping districts from red to blue and actually enabling the type of change they touted.
Unencumbered by political reality, the new ecosystem of progressive nonprofits encountered “death by intersectionality,” in which all progressive issues become litmus tests for any issues group (see: Sunrise’s DC chapter’s claim that ”Defunding the Police is Housing Justice”).
Whereas TFA powered the pragmatic realism, focus, and optimistic patriotism of the Obama era left, groups like Sunrise powered the uncompromising idealism, lack of focus, and apocalypticism that drives the extremely online far-left flank of the Democratic Party and has made it harder for Democrats to win elections.
From Obama-Era Optimism to Trump-Era Cynicism
George W. Bush has a simple explanation for his high-profile friendship with Michelle Obama: “Funeral jokes. She seems to think they’re funny.”
It is too early to hold a funeral for education reform, but not to identify the cause of illness: a suffocating strain of elite progressive extremism. That illness is contagious, weakening not only the bipartisan consensus on K-12 but the center’s ability to function and the Democratic Party’s ability to win majorities.
Yglesias charges Obama with overpromising. Obama’s message was not just optimistic, it was energetic and realistic - and popular.
“Yes, we can” improve schools not only helped him win two elections, but fulfilled his critique of those on the left who would “defend an indefensible status quo, insisting that more spending alone will improve educational outcomes.” It defined him against a far-left he could not defend.
The far-left message of “Actually, no we can’t” improve K-12 schools was not a winner —and is not a winner now. San Francisco’s pandemic caricature of the far-left - that closing schools just meant “different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure” — made it even clear how much the far-left is a political loser on schools, even in deep blue cities.
Public schools — the place where the government is responsible for most Americans for much of their early life — will continue to be a battleground for voters. And Democrats are not winning them.
Fewer than 1 in 4 Independent voters trust Democrats on education. As Yglesias points out, too many Democrats have gone stale on the issue. Former Obama staffer Ravi Gupta asks if the GOP is now winning the education message war. Former Clinton policy advisor Andrew Rotherham adds to this sentiment, noting that Democrats have been loath to stake a position in too many of today’s education debates.
“In politics it’s hard to beat something with nothing. And right now the Democratic answer on parents’ rights is nothing. Not in the badass Godfather, “my final offer is this: nothing” way, but in a we got nothing way. That’s a miss. An avoidable and consequential one.”
Filling this consequential gap is essential both for what happens in classrooms and in the ballot box.
Who can fill it?
Chait calls on “Democrats” to understand this connection between battles over effective education policy and electoral weakness, and then to “fight as hard as they can to keep them out of power”.
“The Democrats” cannot fight the coherent faction anchored by reform opponents. Only another coherent faction can do that.
It certainly does feel like things fell apart, that the center cannot hold. And that we need a faction. One anchored by a network with significant financial and human capital, a community motivated by a shared vision that is patriotic, optimistic, and grounded in reality.
If ed reform did die, it is time for a second coming.
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