Friday, May 27, 2016

Ed Debate Political Fault Lines

Even a casual stroll through the Garden of Reformy Delights reveals some flora and fauna that do not ordinarily grow together. Here are some small government types clamoring for education standards imposed on the federal level. There are some nominal liberals complaining about the evils of teacher unions. Support for charter schools runs across the entire political range.

And it's no different in the Greenhouse of Reform Resistance. The push against Common Core united Bible-thumping conservatives with godless heathen liberals. The lawmakers in Oklahoma who just rejected test-and-wonky-math-driven evaluation for teachers were not Democrats standing up for teachers' unions, but Republicans standing up for local control.

The Ed Reform Debates have been marked by wholesale traffic in Strange Bedfellows, and that tends to create some stress and strain within some alliances.

At the Fordham blog, Robert Pondiscio is concerned that schisms within the reform camp are creating problems for conservatives. Specifically, he sees the "liberal" wing of reform, the social justice warriors, pushing out the conservatives, the fans of unleashing free market forces, a conflict that Pondiscio says he's been seeing unfold at various reformy gatherings.

One veteran conservative education reformer describes himself as “furious and frustrated” by the increasing dominance of social justice warriors in education reform and the marginalization of dissenting views. “It's an existential threat,” he notes. “Any group that only associates with likeminded people is susceptible to becoming extreme, inflexible, self-righteous, and losing its ability to see its own weaknesses.” This opinion was echoed in a series of interviews with other prominent reformers—most right of center, though not all—in the past week. One sign of the dominance of the new orthodoxy: Almost none were willing to be quoted on the record. “I'm involved in too many fights,” says one. “I can't pick another.”

Pondiscio is worried that the collapse of an alliance between social justice liberals and free market conservatives will keep both from achieving their goals, and of course, I'm okay with that. But if I'm honest-- well, it's not like the Pro Public Education side of things is devoid of any disagreement or infighting. There are some pretty fundamental splits over here, such as disagreement about whether Common Core was an aberrant attack on US public education or a symptomatic expression of everything already wrong with US public ed.

But as someone who doesn't parse politics for a living, I want to suggest that there is both more and less to these sorts of divisions than meets the eye. In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I'm a registered Democrat (because PA independents don't get to vote in primaries) with virtually no political heroes (except my grandmother, a lifelong NH legislator) and who comes from a family background of Republicanism.

So what are some of the fault lines running through the education debates?

Tribal Alliances

We're living through the very worst of political tribalism, as both GOP and Democrats jettison every pretense of principle just in hopes of being able to say, "Somebody nominally labeled a member of my party won the Presidency!" With both Trump and Clinton, we are treated to a display of party leaders declaring, "There is no belief that I would not toss in the trash in return for the chance to stand next to a winner."

In many states, education alliances have been built on similar principles. If a Democratic governor comes out for ed reform, GOP legislators must oppose him, because reasons. Ditto GOP backers of reformster policies. Once just one person takes a stand, everyone else has to line up based on their party allegiances and not any particular principles about education.

Follow the Money

The reformster movement draws much of its power from the basic observation, "Hey, that is one huge pile of money over there in public education. We want a piece." The hedge fund industry was not suddenly struck with concern about education; they saw a plum ripe for the plucking, and they got out their hedge fund trimmers. Free market fans say, "Sure, and that pursuit of money is what will fuel a competition for educational excellence," and I think they are full of what my grandmother used to call manookie.

But money is politics-blind. It is amoral. When The Gates spends a gazillion dollars on ed reform advocacy, it doesn't care about the political or philosophical stripes of the recipients-- Gates would have given a pile of money to the Church of the Flying Spagetti Monster if he thought that church could help promote Common Core. Whitney Tilson's decision to found Democrats for Education Reform instead of Republicans for Education Reform was, in his own telling, a tactical choice and not connected to any particular political convictions. Only Nixon can go to China, and only a Democrat could argue that the teachers unions should be banished to Outer Slobovia.

So in many cases, we're not talking about convictions or philosophies or deep-held ideas. Just money.

Rhetorical Tool Bags

Civil rights and social justice. Escaping zip codes. Let the students have control of their own school money. Provide all parents with a choice. Freedom. Escape government schools. Stifled by teachers unions. Achievement. Achievement gap.

The list is long. Advocating for a political policy point is about finding the language to frame the issue and control the narrative. You don't get there by asking "What do I actually believe" but by asking "What language will best push people to our side? What will help us sell the policy?"

This is politics as usual. Hire a group to do market studies, and create a manual, as the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools did when they hired the Glover Group to create the Charter School Messaging Notebook. Set up your talking points, hire some guys to help deploy them, rinse and repeat.

What muddies the water is that with every talking point, you will have some combination of people who actually believe the talking point and some who are just cynical operators. The civil rights issue that is at the heart of what troubles Pondiscio is one such tool-- there are plenty of folks who are really and sincerely committed to the civil rights and equity side of the education debates, and there are others who have latched onto the argument as a way to win their true goals. The ultimate effect is people who are saying the same thing, but who have completely different intentions and values behind their words. Which brings us to...


Some participants in the ed debates simply aren't honest about what their goals and values are, mostly because they understand that if they were honest, they would lose. You can't just say, "We really want to make a lot of money by taking over part of the public education system" or "We really want to increase our political clout by making alliances with people that our members find odious" and definitely not "I'm going to push this idea mainly because I've been paid well to do so."

So you find ways to dress it up and thereby establish that one of the Rules of Engagement will be that folks can go ahead and sling bullshit as much as they want, which has the extra consequence of having everyone enter the debates with their bullshit defectors set on "High."

There's a huge level of intellectual dishonesty among many reformsters, who select whatever argument they believe will help them make the sale, though there are certainly conservative reform fans who display a willingness to follow their principles where they lead, rather than trying to create an argument for the outcome they've pre-selected. I read guys like Pondiscio, Andy Smarick, and Rick Hess not because I agree with them, but because they are generally honest and consistent about what they say and how they follow a line of thought.

And about those political labels

This morning I saw someone responding to the article by calling Pondiscio a liberal, which is seriously off the mark. Well, I think it's off the mark. Because labels are hard to sort out these days. We have Democrat and GOP governors who are standing up for exactly the same thing. I would be hard-pressed to find the difference between the "left-leaning" Center for American Progress and the "right-leaning" Fordham Institute when it comes to education policy. What's the difference between a neo-liberal and a free market conservative, again?

I'm far more interested in the principles that guide a person than what label we can slap on that person. As soon as we start labeling, we lose a ton of nuance and we start to group things (and people) together in ways that don't necessarily hold up or make sense. Pondiscio is worried about the liberals throwing the conservatives out of the reform movement, but I have some doubts about how many of those "liberals" and "conservatives" are really, actually either.

Those kinds of alliances make sense for specific goals ("Let's get all the fences painted red") but have a hard time holding together for broader, vaguer objectives ("Let's insure policy is more influenced by neo-syllogistic free market equity concepts").

False Equivalency Disclaimer

While it's possible for all sides (there are definitely more than two) of the education debates to be riven by these fault lines, you will be unsurprised to learn that I think reformsters are far more susceptible.

For one thing, there is far more money in play in pro-reform circles. Carol Burris, head of the Network for Public Education, is literally the only person I can think of who is even sort of making a living as an advocate for public education. Meanwhile, Gates and Walton and the rest have thrown enough money at reformsters to support a small country, and that money is being thrown because even more money is at stake as winnings in the ed policy debate. That kind of money draws a large number of flies, including flies that may or may not care about anything except the money.

Meanwhile, there's no good reason to be an advocate or activist for public education except that you care about the issues involved. I know some reformsters find this hard to believe, hence the occasional claims that somebody is being paid Big Bucks by the unions. But no-- we're just here sticking up for what we believe, in a fairly uncoordinated, disorganized manner. There's no question that the Resistance is not one tight, completely-in-agreement coalition, but there aren't as many of us, and we don't have a lot of power or money riding on the outcome. I'm not in a Movement, and so I don't have to make sure that I'm saying the currently-approved statements or throwing support to people I disagree with just because we are paid by the same backers. If you're an opportunist looking to score power and money, the reform resistance movement is a bad investment.

The reform movement has always stapled together folks who are not naturally allies. Throw in all the rest of these fractures and issues and you're sure to see pieces and parts come flying off the machine from time to time. Heck-- the Common Core Cheerleaders Club has gotten mighty small and lonely and now has to sit in the back instead of taking reformy point. If I were a reformster, I might worry less about the mix of liberals and conservatives and more about the mix of people who are sincerely concerned and people who are just opportunists.

1 comment:

  1. Let me describe how I see these people. They do a lot of "stuff" to make themselves look "busy". Their work is trying to get out of work because they don't have anything meaningful in which to do. They like to tell everyone else what to do, but are unwilling to do it themselves....and they really like living the high life but they can't do that without a cushy job.