Education Reform Democrats Look Ahead to Life After Obama

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 26, 2016.
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Lately on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has been talking about how she wants to end the “so-called education wars.” The Democratic presidential nominee wants to see the factionalism among education groups end and instead see new coalitions form to advance policies on which all can agree. Clinton took this message on the road to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers conferences earlier this month, and her campaign proffered another education olive branch to the Democrats for Education Reform on Monday in downtown Philadelphia.

Virtually every speaker lauded President Obama’s education legacy, highlighting his support for charter schools and test-based accountability at the organization’s day-long Democratic National Convention forum. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, said he recognized that many have been feeling anxious and unsure about whether Obama’s successor will be as friendly toward their political agenda as he was.

Ann O’Leary, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, assured the school choice–supporting audience that the Democratic presidential nominee and the reformers have a “shared vision.” She said that Clinton touted “great charter schools” at both of those recent teacher union conferences. But Clinton notably did not lavish praise on charter schools when she appeared before the American Federation of Teachers last week in Minneapolis. After denouncing for-profit charters and vouchers, she said simply, “where there are public charter schools, we will learn from them.”

Kira Orange Jones, the executive director for Teach for America’s greater New Orleans region, said that she’s “profoundly concerned” that the Democratic Party may divert its attention away from protecting the rights of all children, especially the most disenfranchised. “That’s our party, that’s why I’m a Democrat,” she said.

Meanwhile, school integration also prompted a vigorous discussion among attendees. Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, made an impassioned case for a deeper focus on integration. “We cannot turn our backs on Brown [v. Board of Education],” she said. “And, yes, I do think [Democrats for Education Reform] stands to play an important role in moving that project forward.”

Others made the case for successful segregated charter schools, and questioned whether a real political will exists to pursue new desegregation efforts. Surprisingly, attendees had very little to say about Clinton’s Democratic vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, or his wife, Anne Holton. Holton, who recently stepped down as Virginia’s education secretary, was a strong supporter of school integration and had opposed the further expansion of charter schools. Her father, former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton, a Republican, championed school desegregation during his time in office in the early 1970s.

Though the forum focused on the future of the Democratic Party’s educational agenda, teachers unions, a core constituency within the party, received little attention. “Unions don’t get all the seats at the table,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokesperson who now heads a communications firm working toweaken teacher tenure and other job protections.

Tafshier Cosby-Thomas, a Newark parent who came down to Philadelphia for the discussions, told The American Prospect that she believed that teachers unions in Newark are “very territorial” and don’t want to collaborate. “They don’t want to even find out about what’s happening in the charter schools,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re unwilling or if traditionally they’re standoffish.”

While education reformers were clearly throwing their political weight behind Hillary Clinton—organizers passed out pins with Clinton’s picture on them to all the attendees—some audience members were still “feeling the Bern.” Kean University student Yasmine Veale, a member of the New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options told the Prospect that she’s been considering becoming an independent in the next election cycle. “I’d like to see Democrats become more progressive, and not stay in the center,” she said. Like many millennial women, Veale backed Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary.

“I’m glad that some of what Bernie wanted made its way into the party platform,” she said. “But I’d still really like to see free education for all. It’s crazy that I have to work three jobs … and I’m still going to have a whole bunch of debt.”

Joy Russell, a Washington parent who serves on the advisory board of the Democrats for Education Reform’s D.C. chapter, told the Prospect that she feels confident Hillary Clinton will continue to push for the education policies that Obama has backed, but that overall, “politics have been getting in the way” of ensuring high-quality education for all kids.

Hillary on Charters: Yes and No

Originally published in the The American Prospect on July 6, 2016.
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On Tuesday morning, as the FBI issued a recommendation to not indict Hillary Clinton for her use of a personal email server while secretary of state, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee came before more than 7,500 delegates at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., and praised public charter schools—to the audible dismay of some of the delegates—while condemning for-profit ones.

The moment of tension emerged when Clinton started to discuss replicating the success of “great schools”—including public charter schools. She noted there had been too much focus on so-called “failing” schools.

Though Clinton has been a long-time supporter of school choice, and her husband helped to catapult charters to the national stage when he was president, she took heat from charter school advocates in November when she remarked that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Although an adviser emphasized shortly thereafter that Clinton remains a “strong supporter” of public charter schools, many reformers remained leery of her commitment.

But on Tuesday, Clinton gave charters a shout-out, resulting in the loudest boos she received the entire morning. “We’ve got no time for these education wars!” Clinton told the crowd. Facing the evidently anti-charter audience, Clinton quickly pivoted to denouncing for-profit charter schools, saying, “We will not stand for [them].”

The Representative Assembly is the annual conference for the NEA, the nation’s largest labor union, which gathers each summer to set its political agenda for the coming year. The union, with its nearly three million members, endorsed Clinton in October, following the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed her last July. Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s ideas around public education have been much debated, with self-proclaimed reformers worried she would be hostile to their policies, while many rank-and-file teachers remained skeptical that Clinton would stand up for unions and fight efforts to privatize public schools. 

Despite these concerns, the mood in the plenary hall on Tuesday was overwhelmingly enthusiastic; members wore “Educators for Hillary” T-shirts, waved signs in support, and cheered with excitement.

“I want to say right from the outset that I’m with you,” Clinton told the audience early on in her speech. She promised that if elected, educators will “have a partner at the White House” and that they’ll “always have a seat at the table.”

Clinton framed her education policy proposals around the slogan of “TLC,” or teaching, learning, and community. She threw out a lot of ideas that met eager applause, from raising teacher salaries to reducing the role of standardized testing, to creating universal preschool for every child. She discussed “repairing crumbling schools” and making general investments in school facilities and technology.

Clinton’s rhetoric on charters mirrors language in the recently released Democratic Party platform, which says the party is committed to providing parents with “high-quality public school options” and expanding such options—namely neighborhood schools and charters—for low-income children. The platform comes out against for-profit charter schools, which it says are “focused on making a profit off public resources.”

According to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a charter advocacy group, just under 13 percent of charters are run by for-profit companies, though in cities like Detroit, more than 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profits. However, the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit is often messier than groups like NAPCS readily admit: Nonprofit charters can still hire for-profit management companies to run their schools.

Some states have begun banning for-profit charter schools, or passing laws that make opening them more difficult. Last year, California legislators tried to ban for-profit charter schools from operating in their state, but Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying he did not “believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.” The momentum against for-profit schools has clearly grown more pronounced since then, and also reflects growing divisions within the education reform coalition, between those who champion market-based reforms, and those who push for greater accountability.

In her speech, Clinton also denounced her likely opponent, Donald Trump, who enthusiastically endorsed charter schools during a March primary debate and has said he opposes Common Core standards and “may cut the Department of Education.”

The NEA carries formidable political weight. According to the union, its members represent one out of every 58 general election voters. Rallying those teachers who preferred Senator Bernie Sanders for president to not only vote for Clinton in November but also help campaign for her will be a pressing priority for the union’s leadership.

Following the speech, the union released a statement saying that Clinton’s remarks “held no punches in articulating a clear and inspiring vision of opportunity for every student in America, regardless of ZIP code.”