Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Faux Progressive Polka

It has always been one of the curiosities of the reformster movement-- the insistence that they are Progressives  and Democrats, while they have embraced and pushed policies linked to the privatization of public education.

How could it be that Bush II's ed policy could flow seamlessly into Obama's? How could it be that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton saw each other as simpatico when it came to education?

The answer, of course, is that ed reform has been driven in large part by faux progressives. Probably the most spectacular example would be Democrats For Education Reform (DFER), a title in which the only accurate word is "for." Here, from his filmic ed reform magnum opus "A Right Denied," is DFER founder and hedge fund giant Whitney Tilson's explanation of how they decided to put the D in DFER:

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

But now the head of DFER has this to say about serving in a Trump administration.

It is, generally speaking, an honor for any person of any political persuasion to be asked by the President of the United States to consider a Cabinet-level appointment, but in the case of President-elect Trump, DFER encourages no Democrat to accept an appointment to serve as Secretary of Education in this new administration. In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.

Exactly which agenda would that be? Attacking teachers unions and their work to try to establish and maintain a safer, more productive educational environment for students? The spreading of choice and voucher programs that will suck precious resources away from all schools, particularly the poor schools that can least afford it? The dismantling of a fundamental democratic public institution in order to create money-making schemes for private individuals? Because all of those things sound just like Trump, and just like DFER.

Perhaps reformsters have in many cases tried to paint themselves as left-leaning progressives because they believe, as Rick Hess does, "that the center in education is two standard deviations to the left of the American public." Hess just tried to parse out the left-right thing, but some of his historical recap does not look familiar to me.

What usually gets missed, however, is that for the past decade, this clash has primarily existed between two wings of the Democratic Party. The "reformers" have mostly been passionate, Great Society liberals who believe in closing "achievement gaps" and pursuing "equity" via charter schooling, teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and test-based accountability. And their opponents have been the Democratic Party's more traditional, New Deal wing. Other than occasional guest appearances by the likes of centrist Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Lamar Alexander, this has mostly been an intramural fight.

Not how I remember it. I remember lots of more-than-guest (let's call them "featured") appearances by Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn and Andy Smarick and Hess himself, among others, working for an assortment of right-leaning thinky tanks. Much of the reformster agenda percolated along quite nicely under the Bush II administration. Conservatives have not been observers in these debates, though some tried to retroactively back away once Common Core blew up in their face. And if reformsters are Great Society Liberals, I am the Queen of Rumania.

Actual Queen of Rumania

Since I first started mucking around in this pool, the left-right thing has puzzled me (I'm from good New Hampshire stock-- political labels have never been a big thing in my family). Where are the acual progressives in education? How can anyone call a Moskowitz or a She Who Will Not Be Named a progressive Democrat? What exactly separates, policy-wise,  a Dmitri Melhorn from a Mike Petrilli, a Peter Cunningham from a Rick Hess? As near as I've been able to tell, only two things-- well, two and a half.

1/2) Some of the right generally doesn't care for Common Core (any more) and the left (or at least the left-for-reformy-purposes left) thinks the Core matters (unless, like Petrilli, they're in the CCSS promotion biz).

1 1/2) The right thinks schools should be privatized because business and competition do a better job, and the left-for-reformy-purposes thinks schools should be privatized because equity.

2 1/2) The left wants to talk about using education to fix civil rights and poverty. The right wants to talk about using schools to fix any excuses for being poor. The Trump Right, whatever the hell that is exactly, is probably not going to be super-concerned about the civil rights thing.

And I can still find exceptions for those distinctions.

But now everybody has to confront a grim reality-- Donald J. Trump thinks charters and choice are awesome and the Common Core sucks (though he doesn't really understand it). What's a DFER to do? On the one hand, they are trying to look like Democrats. On the other hand, they agree with every dot and tittle of Trump's likely ed policy.

There are any number of explanations-- Trump has no actual convictions on any political scale, the backers for various policies have shifted, blah blah blah. I think the most likely explanation is that privatization was never a progressive idea, ever, but when faux progressives were controlling the political conversation, it behooved people in search of power and support to put on their own progressive masks.

So what's the play now? Stop pretending to be progressives and throw in their lot with the Trumpians (who are themselves only pretending to be conservatives)?

But modern charter schools, the testing industry, the data mining of America-- none of that was ever governed by a political ideology as much as it's guided by a deep love of money. In this, as in many other areas, Trump has if nothing else ripped the pretense off a lot of high-flung baloney. Trump is about power and profit, and power and profit are all the motivation you need to come up with a program of privatizing, monetizing, and digitizing US education. You can add some political philosophizing after the fact, but it's really beside the point.

Modern corporate reform is congealed around neither right nr left; it's heart beats to the neo-liberal rhythm which means we shall have social programs (yay, liberals!) that are contracted out to the free market (yay, conservatives!) But neo-liberalism serves righties far better than it serves lefties. They get their money, but privatized programs have yet show real quality.

And then there's the dark underbelly of modern reform, particularly charter choice programs that remove democratic process from non-wealthy non-white neighborhoods, giving our lesser what we think is best for them and, in the case of No Excuses schools, the kind of tight domination and control that Those People need. This view of Those People is also not incompatible with Trumpism.

We can play the left-right game all day. Schools tend to attract people who are oriented toward helping and uplifting other people, so the school world should skew left. But schools are also old, hidebound institutions that rely heavily on tradition and stability-- so, conservative. But that left-right dichotomy is not the problem reformsters face.

What they face is a unique and striking dilemma. Under Trump, they can have every policy they ever wanted, save Common Core. But they can only have the policies bare and stripped of any pretense. DFER and Jeanne Allen's Center for Education Reform can have almost everything they want, but they can only have it in a Trump-tied bow. They can only have their policies by admitting that their policies are not progressive at all (and by admitting they're totally okay with Trumpian awfulness as long as they get choice and charters). They can only oppose Herr Trump by disowning their own policies. Or they can dance around in a faux progressive polka, doing their best to respond to the music they never asked for, but which is everything they want. For grifters like She Who Will Not Be Named (formerly of DC schools) this is just a practical problem of angling for success; for sincere reformsters (yes, I believe such things exist), it's a real moral dilemma.

Their best hope may be the path hinted at by Hess-- if we pretend that all reform is progressive and Trump is conservative, well then, we can sell Trump plus some reformster as a compromise that brings us to the sensible middle. That would be a lie. That version of the faux progressive polka will just get us years of policy that just extend the last two decades of reformster policy, and in one more area the most faux anti-establishment President of them all will just keep dancing the same old reformster path-- red to the right, blue to the left, and green all the way to the horizon.


  1. "But now everybody has to confront a grim reality-- Donald J. Trump thinks charters and choice are awesome and the Common Core sucks (though he doesn't really understand it). What's a DFER to do? On the one hand, they are trying to look like Democrats. On the other hand, they agree with every dot and tittle of Trump's likely ed policy."

    Hillary Clinton could reasonably be substituted for Donald Trump above. If you delete the "Common Core sucks" reference. Hillary probably has to like it because OBAMA!

    What she actually thinks, if she does, is probably not much different from Trump or the entire Rheephormy nexus.

  2. Here's Hess and Finn blaming teachers for needlessly stirring up students' fears about a Trump administration. I want to go into a cave for the next four years.

    Christine Langhoff

  3. When you mention that now the DFERs might have every policy they wanted, save the Common Core, I am just too much a hardened cynic to think that that billions of investment dollars embedded in the CC programs will ever be easily uprooted. I'm imagining only yet another sleight of hand, here, as the school "reformers" (profiteers) are wont to do. Maybe a renaming, a few facelift distractions, etc. But control over curriculum, technology and testing -- all left to sit safe and stable.