Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Revising Reform for Trumplandia

If reformsters are good at anything, it's revising the narrative to match current conditions. They are masters of the retcon (a comics term referring to retroactively altering character continuity, like when Frank Miller introduced Elektra into Daredevil continuity and we suddenly learned that a character we had never heard about before had actually been-- oh, shut up. You're a nerd!).

Anyway, reformsters periodically go back and retroactively rewrite the story. What's that you say? No way-- Common Core was always intended to be flexible and adaptable for each school system. What's that you say? No, we never said that every school district must adopt the Common Core Standards! Teachers? We totally love them and never ever blamed all of education's ills on them. No, we never promised that charters would do more with fewer dollars. And of course we have always contended that charter schools are public private public private public private public private look, we'll get back to you on this one. Sometimes reformsters have been rewriting harder than a Soviet Russia historian and actual history has disappeared faster than Chuck Cunningham.

No Happy Days forthis guy-- gone and completely forgotten

The Rise of Trump has brought the erasers out in force.

Reformsters have a problem, exemplified by this set of tweets regarding Jeanne Allen, head and mouth of the very reformy Center for Education Reform:

Trump is ready to give reformsters most of what they want, yet to get it, they have to figure out how to embrace-not-embrace Trump himself.

Today brought a new attempt at this dance that both reveals the tack that reformsters are going to try as well as showing why they want to try it.

At Real Clear Education, Shavar Jeffries (Democrats [sic] for Education Reform) and Peter Cunningham (Education Post), both super charter school fans,  attempt to solidify the left-tilted reformster argument, based partly on a real distinction and partly on fake history of what has happened so far.

The distinction they'd like to make is between charter fans who want accountability and those who don't. Many charter supporters, they point out, have called repeatedly for strong accountability. This is a True Thing-- it wasn't that long ago that several charter organizations were themselves calling out the bogus money-sucking scam that is cyber-charter schooling. I have talked to several charter promoters who believe that charters must be held accountable because 1) nobody benefits from fly-by-night charter scams and 2) they risk making the rest of the charter industry look scary and bad and in need of tight government control.

Unfortunately, Secretary of Ed-in-Waiting Betsy DeVos doesn't believe in any of that accountability, and has spent decades spending great gouts of money to block any such accountability. The results are on display in states like Michigan and Florida, where all manner of charter shysters are allowed to run rampant with no regard for damage, waste and fraud. DeVos believes the market will sort these folks out, despite the glaring evidence that the market will do no such thing.

So Jeffries and Cunningham contend there is some dissension in the charter-loving ranks, and on this issue, I believe they are correct. However, they also have a story to tell about how we got here, and that part reads like a fantasy tale from an alternate universe.

School choice has a proud progressive history. 

Um, no. It really doesn't. Jeffries and Cunningham rattle off some names like Rahm Emmanuel and Andrew Cuomo, who barely qualify as Democrats at all, and Presidents like Clinton and Obama, who developed and perfected the technique of consolidating Democratic power by abandoning Democratic principles. The writers also try to invoke Albert Shanker, the Great-Godfather of charters, but they skip over the part where a few years into the experiment, Shanker turned his back on charters after seeing them become money-making businesses instead of engines of educational innovation.

Public school choice has an even more robust conservative history, based on conservative principles of free markets and competition.

That sounds a little more like it. But the writers bring this up in order to invoke the "bipartisan alliance" that has been behind the choice movement. Maybe. I would describe the alliance as one between people who say they want charters because they believe in the free market and people who say they want charters because it will bring social justice. What I've never been entirely certain is just how many people in the latter group are just running a con. It's fitting that the head of DFER is co-writing this piece, since DFER's origin was about finding a way to move the Democratic Party into line with reform.

Some of us have been pointing out the very non-progressive elements of the school choice movement for years, but today Shavars and Cunningham discovered some of them, too. The charter overwhelming preference for non-union teachers and the general assault on unions. The members of the choice community who are mostly interested in defunding education entirely. The duo retcon their way to this assertion:

The grand bargain at the heart of the school choice movement is accountability for autonomy. In exchange for performance goals linking a charter school’s survival to academic results and other student outcomes, they are freed up from bureaucracy and red tape that limits innovation and flexibility.

Nope. That has been the sales pitch, but in many areas, it has most definitely not been the grand bargain, the mediocre bargain, or even the blue light special. Where free market fans have led the charge (e.g. Ohio, Jeb Bush's Florida, DeVos's Michigan), charters have pressed for autonomy only. Charters have gone to court to fight hard to avoid being accountable to anyone.

Nor can these guys pretend to be surprised by any of this. For instance, when it comes to slamming the unions, nobody has done it more relentlessly than DFER. Shavars and Cunningham warn that "when the choice movement devolves into an anti-union movement, it loses support on the left," but DFER has been right on the front lines of that devolution.

So why are they suddenly so fretful about all this, anyway? The clue is in this article's warning that these behaviors will "lose support on the left," or as Cunningham tweeted it

It's not the concern about principle, or allying with an odious and destructive administration, or even being revealed as hypocrites. A whole parade of reformsters have lined up, like Jeanne Allen, to announce that while they used to be horrified by Trump, maybe his administration will actually be swell. Hey, if Mitt Romney can be turned with a cheap meal, why wouldn't choice advocates be willing to change sides at the prospect of getting everything they ever wanted?

No, that's not the issue.

The issue is that the reformster movement managed to convince a whole bunch of progressives and Democrats to join in, play along, come get in the tent, and generally support the movement. They could sell it by talking about civil rights and making life better for poor brown and black children and most of all by pointing at a popular Democratic President who was the most elevated face of the reform movement. And now those actual progressives are experiencing a moment just like that one in the tower where Dorothy sees Aunty Em in the crystal ball, but then suddenly it's the Wicked Witch, and reformy folks are worried that Trump's scary face with chase away a bunch of erstwhile progressive reform supporters.

Look, for a couple of decades now, the choice charter movement has not been supported by a bipartisan alliance of Democrats and Republicans. It has been a neo-liberal privatization program, pushed by an "alliance" of neo-liberals who called themselves Republicans and neo-liberals who called themselves Democrats. It has been easy for neo-lib-GOP folks to sell the wonders of free market competitive privatizing to at least the business wing of the GOP. It has taken a bit more saleswork for the neo-lib-dems to sell privatization to their crowd, and now they have lost the allure and leverage and power of leading the ruling party. The neo-lib point people have never had trouble shifting gears and changing tunes, but the people who fell in line because they sincerely bought what neo-lib-dems were selling-- those people will be harder to keep in the big tent.

Neo-lib-dem leaders are going to have to come up with a new sales pitch, a way that progressives can oppose Herr Trumps DC dumpster fire and Billionaire Betsy's call to let public education burn while still pushing hard for charters and choice. It's going to take something more clever than an issue of "accountability," but be patient. This is just the first draft; I'm sure they'll come up with the next revision, a new argument, at which point, it will become the argument that they swear they've always been making.


  1. I don't know any true Progressives who support that kind of "choice." It seems to me that to support it, one would be abandoning what makes one Progressive.

    Maybe it's my lack of coffee talking/typing, but that's how it looks to me here.

  2. Everyone wants their piece of the billions in education dollars so of course they will change their stance. GREED rules the world so screw the children. There is a special hot place in HELL for people who bilk children and old people out of money and services. What I tell my kids all the time is that "Karma happens"....but most of the time it happens in the long run and not immediately.

  3. I think any true progressive who was bamboozled at first by the social justice argument has figured out by now that "choice" is not a feasible solution, and understands that charters and the "free market" cannot provide enough good "choices" for everyone.