Clinton Reframes Education Message, Attacks Trump

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 19, 2016.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Hillary Clinton took advantage of a speech to the American Federation of Teachers this week to test out her party’s retooled K-12 education platform, and to hammer home important themes of her presidential campaign.

Clinton’s speech to more than 3,000 AFT delegates gathered for the group’s national convention in Minneapolis on Monday took place against the backdrop of a GOP convention centered heavily on anti-Clinton attacks. It was one of several campaign stops that Clinton is making this week, including an Ohio speech earlier on Monday to the NAACP, and an address to government workers scheduled for Wednesday.

Clinton’s Minnesota speech differed noticeably from a National Education Association address she gave in Washington, D.C., less than two weeks ago, in which she had stated early on that we should pay attention to “great schools,” including public charter schools. These comments had produced the loudest boos for Clinton at the NEA, prompting her to quickly pivot to denouncing for-profit charter schools.

At the AFT, Clinton actually opened her charter school discussion by condemning for-profit charters, then denouncing vouchers “that drain resources from public schools.” (Clinton had not mentioned private school vouchers at the NEA’s conference.) Following these comments, she merely told the AFT, “Where there are public charter schools, we will learn from them.” Nobody booed.

It was Clinton’s first education speech since party operatives last week made several substantive changes to the Democratic platform around K-12 education, beefing up some union demands and toning down some of the education reform rhetoric of an earlier platform draft. The changes prompted Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, to issue a statement saying the platform had been “hijacked” and now constitutes an “unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy.”

The new platform articulates support for parents who opt their children out of standardized tests, and opposes the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and administrators. The platform also is more conditional in its support for charter schools—stating that they must “accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners,” and that charters must not “replace or destabilize traditional public schools.”

This last point acknowledges the concerns of groups that are working in cities across the country to end or slow the expansion of charter schools. Critics argue that rapid charter growth is placing undue fiscal strain on traditional schools, destabilizing their finances and hurting their students. The platform’s new language largely seems to reject the argument that any destabilization districts face is due to the financial mismanagement of district officials alone.

Clinton’s AFT speech also took a knock at Donald Trump’s recent vice presidential pick, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who is notorious among teachers’ unions for pushing market-focused education policies, raking in money from for-profit charter chains, and advocating for charters and voucher programs across his state. Over the course of the primary season, many more liberal education reform groups—those that promote test-based accountability and charter schools—have largely sought to distance themselves from the incendiary GOP nominee. Trump’s selection of a second-in-command who is so vocally supportive of their reform agenda, however, presents an interesting new challenge for these advocates. The American Federation of Children, a more conservative education reform group that promotes charters and vouchers, has already lauded Trump’s VP choice.

Clinton opened her AFT speech with declarations of support for both African Americans recently killed by police officers and for the officers recently shot and killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

“We cannot let this madness continue,” Clinton said. “This violence cannot stand.” When she started to speak about Philando Castile, the 32-year-old school cafeteria worker who was killed earlier this month by police in suburban Saint Paul, not far from the Minneapolis convention center, local protestors marched into the plenary hall shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” One activist repeatedly shouted, “Stop the deportations!” The audience sought to drown the disrupters out, chanting, “Hillary! Hillary!” until the protestors were quickly escorted out of the room. Clinton had met with Castile’s mother, sister, and two of his uncles earlier that day.

Clinton weaved references to police violence throughout her speech. Midway through her address, she referenced remarks made earlier this month by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who said that society has placed too much on the shoulders of police.

Brown had said at the time: “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” from mental health funding to drug addiction to school failure to single parenting. Brown concluded: “That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems.” Clinton told her AFT audience that teachers face many of the same challenges.

“We ask you to help right wrongs, from poverty and homelessness, to the legacy of racial inequities stretching back centuries,” Clinton said. We ask so much of you and we don’t give you enough in return.”

Clinton also devoted significant time to attacking Trump and Pence. “If you want to look at what kind of president Donald Trump will be just look at who he’s chosen as his running mate,” she told the teachers union, calling Pence “one of the most hostile public officials when it comes to public education.” She referenced the Indiana governor’s decision to slash funding for higher education, and to refuse tens of millions of federal dollars for expanding pre-K education. “Neither Mike Pence nor Donald Trump should be anywhere near our children’s education,” she said.

Following Clinton’s speech, AFT president Randi Weingarten commented on both the Democrats’ newly redrafted education platform, and on how Clinton’s Monday speech reflected those changes.

“I think that what she did today was a tremendous defense of public education and public services,” Weingarten told the Prospect. “In the platform itself, what happened was … the four corners of the platform were there, but we put more meat on the bones. Like when the platform before said ‘charters should have transparency and accountability’—we talked about how.”

Asked what she thought of the Democrats for Education Reform statement that the platform had been hijacked, Weingarten responded:

“I think that DFER better look at itself. When they think that saying that charters should not displace or replace public schools, or that charters should have, and take the same kids as other public schools, and they think that’s hijacked? They’re actually sending a big neon sign that they don’t care about public education.” She added that the platform is “leveling the playing field for charters and other public schools.”

The AFT was the first labor union in the country to endorse Clinton, months before other unions came out with their own endorsements. While there are strong Bernie Sanders supporters among the AFT’s rank and file, many of whom were angered by their union’s early primary endorsement, the convention crowd’s loud cheers demonstrated that the AFT is definitely getting “Ready for Hillary.”

 

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