Monday, January 23, 2017

Dem-ish Reformsters Play Both Sides

You know how it is. New school year starts, lunch time rolls around, and everyone has to decide who they want to sit with for the next year. 

Modern education reform has been fueled in part by folks pretending to be left-tilted Democrats while embracing right-tilted free market corporate-based policies. The sweet smoothie of neo-liberal conservatism has worked for years--it helped sell No Child Left Behind (Look! Bipartisan support For The Children!)  and it worked under the Obama neo-lib administration as well. Really, who cares about political labels and parties and tribes as long as corporate ed reform is still chugging along.

What, really, is the difference between a Democrat-flavored, left-tilted, self-identified progressive education reformster and the crew that just took over the big table in the DC cafeteria?

Remember what Democrats for Education Reform honcho Whitney Tilson had to say about putting the D in DFER:

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…

Then Donald Trump won the election, and a new President means a new year in the cafeteria.

This has presented reformsters with a dilemma. They can have pretty much everything they want, but they have to throw political support to Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump to get it.

Some folks are cool with that. Jeanne Allen and the Center for Education Reform had about five seconds of misgivings last May, and they are now ready to plant a big wet kiss on any part of Trumpian flesh they can get their lips near.

But other reformsters are trying to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, maintaining their reformy credentials while keeping distance between themselves and the least-loved President ever elected along with his Secretary of Education, a woman who has no more time for Democrats than she has for public schools.

So here's Justin Cohen at Chalkbeat, with the super-descriptive headline "I'm an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan." Cohen is a Broadie and member of the board for Students for Education Reform (DFER's little sibling), and his distinction between the wings of reformsterism matches what several others have posited:

The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman...The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. 

This reads like a dispatch from an alternate universe. The reform coalition has been steadfast in its determination to ignore results that don't match its determination to charterize, voucherize and privatize education. Reformsters, for instance, still pursue the idea of an Achievement School District even though the pioneer ASD in Tennessee has failed to produce results. And in states like Florida, Ohio, New York and, yes, Michigan reformsters have held the line against accountability at every step.

And if this divide is so strong and clear, where have these progressive results-oriented accountability hawks been as DeVos has torn through the Michigan education system?

Others mark the divide elsewhere. Here's reformy press agent Richard Whitmire at the74 trying to explain the new confusion and identifying it mostly as a charters-vs-vouchers division, with a side order of pendulum fear:

One not-so-private fear is the all-too-real chance of a major pendulum swing. When the Trump era ends, chances are good that politics will swing to the progressive side. At that point, charters will be tainted by Trump, mashed up with vouchers, and will undoubtedly lose their crucial bipartisan support. Especially from any Democracts in the white middle class.

That's a reasonable fear for reformsters. By cross-branding their policy drive, they've been able to swing from Clinton to Bush to Obama without ever having to lose political juice or partisan supporters from either camp. But Trump and DeVos are likely to ruin the brand simply by stamping their names on the policies that reformsters have been pushing all along.

Whitney Tilson himself has figured out another way to split the difference. DFER said they thought no Democrats should work with DeVos, but they have not exactly been blistering in their criticism of her. Now in his latest every-so-often-ly newsletter, Tilson manages to have it both ways.

He's been quiet, he says, while weighing DeVos's testimony and perusing the record, and now he has concluded that he can't support her. However-- he will present an entire essay from "an experienced, smart and trusted friend" who says that they're a Democrat who has worked with DeVos since 2000, and lays out why she would be awesome (visionary, super-duper tough on accountability, works For The Children). Tilson doesn't endorse this argument, mind you-- he just wants everyone to hear it.

Tilson has concluded "somewhat reluctantly" that he can't endorse her: 

I say “somewhat reluctantly” because I think she is a smart, capable person who genuinely cares about every child in this country receiving a high-quality education, and also because I agree with her on many things, including the importance of parental choice, especially via good charter schools, and on the need to courageously do battle with the forces of the status quo (including playing political hardball, as this NYT article notes), which are so poorly serving so many millions of children.

That is one heck of a non-endorsement. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Tilson wants his fans to know that he is absolutely not "toeing the unions' line, perish the thought" and manages to lump the unions and Tea Party together. "The unions obviously oppose choice and, like conservative Tea Party Republicans, they oppose strong federal accountability, as they'd like to be left to their own devices locally."

This is perhaps the dividing line that matters most but which is discussed least-- some reformsters would prefer to deal with a federal bureaucracy while others prefer to work with state governments. Is it easier to get tax dollars from the feds, or do you have a better shot at chipping your paydirt off big "block grants" handed to the states? I suppose this depends upon whether your network and contacts are operating in DC or a state capital.

Tilson works his way back around to Cohen's piece, from which he pulls some salient quotes--

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy.  

In other words, because she is such a charter-choice true believer, she doesn't really know anything about anything.

It remains to be seen how reformsters will sort themselves out, and that will undoubtedly depend on what sorts of policy and administrative screw-ups DeVos perpetrates. In the meantime, it's a fascinating dance to watch, like watching middle school students sort themselves into cafeteria tables at the beginning of a new school year.

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