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In 2016, Democrats Have Good Reason to Run Against Obama's Education Record

The political weakness of the common core, charter schools, and other reform ideas

Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

There’s a very real possibility that the Democratic Party is about to undergo a powerful shift on education policy. As others have noted, it’s an area where Democrats are meaningfully divided into competing camps. It’s also an area where the Obama Administration’s efforts have sparked both wide-ranging policy changes and widespread criticism. Obama has advanced significant new policies, and many of those policies are experimental, controversial, or both. And there’s evidence that a Clinton Administration would mean a substantial departure from those reforms.  

The Two Democratic Camps

The more traditional Democratic approach to education emphasizes adequate funding of schools, the role of poverty in affecting educational outcomes, teachers’ job protections, and collective bargaining rights. These folks are often aligned with the American teachers unions, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. They generally take writer Diane Ravitch as one of their prime intellectual lodestars.

The Democratic reformers seek to increase accountability and performance in American schools through a variety of measures. Reformers generally support high academic standards, better data collection on student performance, and school choice policies (especially charter schools). These folks are often aligned with the appropriately-named Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Andrew Rotherham’s Eduwonk blog is one of the best examples of this sort of thinking about education.

Where Obama Stands 

Obama was not nominated—or elected—because of his views on education. He arrived in the White House something of a protean figure. Sure, he’d supported DFER at their inception, but after being elected, he appointed prominent reform critic Linda Darling-Hammond to run his education transition team. Sure, during the 2008 cycle, he suggested that he could be persuaded to support school vouchers, but his campaign closed the door on that possibility just a few days later.

As it turned out, Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, were securely at home in their party's education reform wing. Until pretty recently, this was a crowd with a few prominent local officials (such as Washington, D.C.’s Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty), but little pull at the national level. Under the aegis of Obama’s Department of Education, the reformers were suddenly key players. Through No Child Left Behind waivers, Race to the Top, and other competitive grant programs, Obama moved the ball significantly on the Common Core, incorporating student achievement in teacher evaluations, and building better education data systems. These are things that reformers had been pushing city-by-city. Under Obama, they became national priorities. 

Where Hillary Clinton Stands 

To some degree, Clinton has sought to triangulate between the two education camps in her party. She collected the American Federation of Teachers’ endorsement in 2007, pledging to “protect the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.” On the campaign trail, she decried standardized tests (which provide much of the data reformers see as critically important), asking, “How much creativity are we losing? How much of our children’s passion is being killed?” However, like her husband, she’s been a steady backer of charter schools. She’s been open to linking teacher pay to student performance, though she prefers that student achievement be measured and bonuses be distributed on a schoolwide basis—not to individually successful teachers. 

But Clinton’s future positions on education may have less to do with her past and more to do with the current political environment. For a variety of reasons—scorching conservative opposition, congressional inaction, implementation snafus, etc.—the Obama administration’s reforms have been extremely controversial. While opposition to the Common Core is both more complicated and less widespread than usually reported, it’s emblematic of a weakening American appetite for national education initiatives. 

What Else is Influencing Ed Reform and How Might This Affect  2016?

Obama almost singlehandedly converted the reformers’ ideas into a national governing platform, which masked that wing’s relative political debility. Reform Democrats have a reasonably strong presence in the world of education policy think tanks. However, their grassroots political networks pale in comparison to the anti-reformers, who can frequently count on material and organizational support from the teachers’ unions. 

Consider: The Democrats for Education Reform PAC donated $43,000 to parties, committees, and federal candidates in the 2008 cycle and $17,500 in 2012. And reform-friendly Students First gave just $10,000 in 2012—to a single congressional candidate. The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers combined to give over $5.5 million in 2008 and nearly $20 million in 2012. 

Add to these resource and organizational disparities the fact that reform skeptics are motivated. They’ve been spoiling for their chance to take back the Democrats’ educational agenda for years. In the 2012 election, they had nowhere to turn. Mitt Romney shifted between praising Obama and Duncan’s work on education—and promising to push for much more conservative policies. When the 2016 election cycle begins, they’ll finally have their shot to regain control of the Democratic Party’s approach to education. Count on them to take it—and as aggressively as necessary. 

So: Obama’s reform efforts are controversial, they’re backed by relatively weak interest groups within the party, and they’re facing a determined opposition.

What Are the Likely Positions of the Other Possible 2016 Contenders? 

Why would anyone bother fighting these currents? Clinton is almost certain to pull back from the Obama Administration’s education legacy and tout her longstanding—and growing—credentials on early childhood education. The incentives for Martin O’Malley, Joe Biden, or most any other Democrat are similar.

For a test of the current political climate for education reform, consider that of all the likely 2016 candidates, New York’s Andrew Cuomo is the only one who’s securely in the education reform camp. And his gubernatorial reelection campaign is currently facing a growing insurgency with partial roots in his education policies. It’s likely that Cuomo—or any other candidate supporting charter schools or teacher evaluations incorporating student performance data—will face sustained, coordinated, well-resourced opposition in the 2016 primaries.

What Might a New Democratic Party Educational Platform Look Like? 

Should she win, would President Hillary Clinton use new No Child Left Behind waivers to undo the Obama Administration’s teacher evaluations policy? Do we get any closer towards fixing No Child Left Behind itself? Does the charter school movement slow down? Does the Common Core survive?

These answers are surprisingly difficult to predict. In part, it’s because the binary view of Democratic education politics—reformers versus not-reformers—oversimplifies matters somewhat. Which is a serious problem for those pushing back on education reform. Whatever its deficiencies, the Obama-Duncan view of public education offers a reasonably coherent theory of education’s purpose, its challenges, and which levers are most critical for improvement. It defines a worldview and offers prescriptions. Reform opponents have advanced powerful critiques of this approach, but they’re still searching for a comprehensive alternative. 

Often, their proposed alternatives consist of things that reformers also support. That’s certainly the case for expanded investments in early childhood education, more equitable funding of American schools, improvements to teacher preparation, and even higher pay for teachers. In other words, these aren’t alternatives to reform proposals like the Common Core State Standards, expanded access to charter schools, or new teacher evaluation systems. They’re potentially complementary. 

Or, to put it another way, they’re responding to different problems. There’s widespread—and even bipartisan—agreement that investments in early childhood education can change outcomes for students over their lifetimes. But more and better quality pre-K does nothing for students struggling today in ineffective middle schools. Overhauling teacher preparation suffers from the same problem: It aims at improving teaching and schools over the next five to ten years. Love them or hate them, reform efforts—like rewarding effective teachers with pay increases—offer an immediate response to an urgent problem. 

Presuming that anti-reformers develop a coherent set of alternative policies to the Obama-Duncan approach, they’ll still have political work to do. The reformers’ theory of education had the virtue (though some might call it a vice) of cross-party appeal. Republicans have long supported expanding parental choice through charter schools and other policies. While congressional Republicans have been almost entirely unwilling to work with the Obama Administration on most issues, Duncan has been able to build some degree of good will on the Hill. Whatever anti-reformers come up with to replace Obama and Duncan’s view of education will need to offer some overtures to conservative governing partners—lest it be politically impotent. While reformers and their critics can’t agree on much, surely they can agree that ongoing federal paralysis would be terrible policy for kids.

Image via shutterstock.