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New Charter School Plan Should Alarm the Nation


Charter schools already have a segregation problem. But a new law about to pass in North Carolina would direct even more taxpayer money into funding charter schools that by design, if not by intent, lead to more racial segregation of school children.

This is not only an alarming development in the Old South, where schools made substantial progress on integration since the landmark Brown v. Board Supreme Court case made racially separate schools illegal in 1954.

It’s also a wakeup call to the nation on how a campaign to re-segregate public schools is being carried out in the name of “school choice” and “local control.”

A ‘Design for Segregation’

The bill, House Bill 514, would allow suburban communities outside Charlotte to create and fund their own charter schools.

This is “a design for racial and economic segregation,” writes former NC Teacher of the Year James Ford. “The result of this will ultimately amount to systemic racism.”

The origin of the bill goes back at least two years when the mayor and town board of Matthews, NC, began devising ways to sever ties with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, which merges their schools with those in the city and surrounding county.

At public meetings, Matthews town officials and the State Representative for the community talked openly of creating a task force to explore a separate suburban school district and separating with CMS over issues with “trust,” student assignments, and “bussing.”

“It’s within the authority of the [state] General Assembly to do it,” one official is quoted, citing a previous attempt in 2005 that “went nowhere.”

Somewhere between then and now, the plan for separating from CMS evolved into the idea for Matthews and nearby Mint Hill to create their own charter schools. Currently in North Carolina, charter schools – privately operated schools given taxpayer funds, with fewer operational restrictions than public schools – are authorized, approved, and funded by the state.

By the time HB 514 emerged, Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey had dropped his idea of separating from the district altogether, and instead argued community-based charters would address a need for more “seats” in his community, where there are “excellent schools,” but “too few” of them.

The bill, he said, is about “local control” and giving parents more “options.”

Yet while the language for rationalizing this bill may have evolved into something more palatable, Ford is correct about its “design.” Based on both the historical context of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and the nature of the current unregulated charter school industry, this new bill opens a new pathway to increased school segregation that other states may decide to follow.

A Return to Segregation

Nearly all school districts in the Tar Heel state are “merged districts,” in which inner-city schools share the same district with schools in outlying suburban and rural areas, a configuration that dates back to Reconstruction.

After the Brown ruling, as well as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which held busing was an appropriate way to integrate schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg became, by the 1980s, one of the most racially integrated school districts in America. Such efforts have led to long-term benefits for Black Americans, including greater income, better health outcomes, and lower incarceration rates.

Since then, rulings by more conservative courts overturning previous legal precedent and a state General Assembly dominated by Republicans have done much to resegregate CMS and other NC school districts. House Bill 514 would surely add to the racial imbalances in schools.

Students who live in Matthews, which is 82 percent white, now have opportunities, either by assignment or by choice, to attend schools in nearby neighborhoods where student populations are anywhere between one third to over one-half Black or Hispanic. The student population of CMS overall is just 28 percent white.

Were Matthews students to attend a charter school in their own neighborhood, the likelihood of that school being mostly white (85 – 90 percent) would increase significantly.

The Segregating Impact of Charters

“Charter schools are among the nation’s most segregated [schools],” a recent analysis by the Associated Press found. AP’s findings align with previous studies that have found that charter schools and other forms of school choice are exacerbating existing patterns of segregation.

In North Carolina, there’s little doubt parents use charters to segregate.

North Carolina charter schools are significantly more segregated, with students who are wealthier and whiter than those at public schools in the state. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or school meals, which significantly reduces their appeal to low-income parents. Also, laws governing charter schools in the state dropped the previous requirement for the schools to serve a diverse student population.

In North Carolina, “at traditional public schools,” a recent study found, “only about 30 percent of students attend schools that are ‘highly segregated’ (schools that are more than 80 percent or less than 20 percent white). At charter schools, more than two-thirds attend schools that are highly segregated.”

The impact charters have on segregating students by race and income is especially acute in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. According to a recent study, the growth of charter schools in the district led to more proficient white and Asian students leaving the public schools, while affluent parents used the threat of escape to charters as a way to coerce local officials to redraw student assignment boundaries to reduce racial integration and ensure white parents could send their children to schools in their neighborhoods.

Enacting HB 514 provides white parents with just another mechanism to use charters for what they have become a tool for: separating the races.

A Dangerous New Funding Provision

Backers of HB 514 had conceived a way to use charter schools to legalize racially segregating students, but they still needed a way to fund new community-based charters in the suburbs.

Ironically, CMS alerted NC lawmakers to this problem. A report, funded by the district, warned that in North Carolina “it is against the law for towns to go into debt to pay for schools, so if a town wants to purchase land for a charter school, the town would have to pay in full up front. The report also found that the towns could not use any state funds to build a charter school and can’t raise property taxes for a school without a public referendum.”

During meetings closed to the public and hidden from Democratic state lawmakers, Republican legislators found a way around the funding problem that allows cities across the state, not just Matthews and Mint Hill, to use locally-raised tax money for public schools, including charter schools.

This funding provision “opens the door for districts and charter schools to ask municipal governments to pony up for anything from school resource officers to custodians to teacher pay supplements,” a former state legislator is quoted in an NC news outlet.

So while HB 514 may be confined to just the suburbs of Charlotte, it provides an opening for charters throughout the state to demand funds from local districts and redirect more taxpayer money from public schools to privately controlled “options” that can further segregate schools.

A Dangerous New Pathway to More Inequality

North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has expressed “concerns” about HB 514, but should he decide to veto the budget bill, which the new law is attached to as an amendment, his veto would likely be overridden, as Republicans currently command supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Already, other suburban communities around Charlotte have asked for the same sort of option Matthews and Mint Hill want to have to create their own segregated school system via community owned and operated charter schools.

Proponents of school choice and charter schools often justify increased racial segregation their preferred schools cause  by arguing that parent choice is what matters most.

But the legacy of the Brown ruling is that separate schools will never be equal. What North Carolina is doing defies that truth and opens a dangerous new pathway for other states to create more education inequality.

Will Teacher Uprisings Change Democrats?

Anyone wondering whether teacher uprisings this spring will influence party politics and elections in November should look at what’s happened in this year’s primaries so far.

Most prominent among primary contests involving education issues was an improbable win in Kentucky, where a first-time candidate, math teacher R. Travis Brenda, knocked off the state’s House Republican Majority Leader Jonathan Shell.

Brenda had joined with his colleagues earlier this year in staging sickouts that closed schools across the state to protest Kentucky lawmakers’ handling of state public employee pensions and inadequate school funding. Shell “was part of the legislature’s Republican leadership team that crafted and passed pension, tax, and budget bills,” a Louisville news outlet reports.

Elsewhere in the state, of the 16 Kentucky teachers involved in primary contests, seven were victorious and will join with other teacher-candidates who ran unopposed to field 32 candidates in total in November. Nearly all are Democrats.

“The thing to watch is whether this is the start of something broader,” says NPR’s Domenico Montanaro in reporting about Kentucky’s primary races.

Changing on Education

It’s going to be hard to tell where and if teacher uprisings will change electoral politics, especially in states where uprisings have yet to take place. But there are clear signs the dynamics of education politics are changing in the Democratic party, and those changes are taking place at the very same time progressive populist candidates are surging in Democratic primaries across the country. These insurgencies could result not only in a new Democratic party, but also a new vision for education policy in the party.

One of the clearest signs of the changing education politics in the Democratic party was when the Colorado branch of the party told an influential pressure group of charter school proponents, called Democrats for Education Reform, to stop using the word “Democrats” in its name.

The state party approved an amendment to its 2018 platform opposing any attempts to segregate Colorado schools or make public schools private institutions or “private corporations.”

This schism between defenders of the public-school system within the Democratic party and those in the party who don’t care if more school funding is siphoned to privately operated management businesses is becoming more obvious in primary electoral contests.

In Pennsylvania, two longshot candidates for the State House, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who knocked off establishment incumbents in the primaries, based their platforms on a range of progressive issues including opposing “charter schools as a form of ‘privatization’ that drained public resources.”

Their opponents, the brothers Paul and Dom Costa, had both recently voted against legislation to prevent online charters from exploiting failing students and against a bill that would make all charters more accountable for how they spend public funds.

Another Pennsylvania House upset winner in the Democratic primary, Elizabeth Fiedler, campaigned for “a moratorium on new charters and cyber-charters until their effectiveness and long-term costs are evaluated and they are held to the same standards as traditional public schools.” Her party establishment-endorsed opponent, Jonathan Rowan, never made his views on charter schools a prominent message in his campaign.

In Nebraska, Kara Eastman’s surprising defeat of former Rep. Brad Ashford has been heralded as a sign of progressives making inroads into the Democratic party establishment and a worrying sign among Beltway Democrats of a surging left within the party.

Here again, the upstart Eastman called for continued investment in public schools and public-school educators and resistance to those “who advertise the benefits of expanding charter schools.” Her establishment opponent left the issue of charter schools unaddressed.

Wooing Teachers

This is not to say opposition to charter schools has become a progressive rallying cry, in the way that Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and other issues already have.

In Idaho, for instance, Paulette Jordan’s win is being cast as a progressive plus in a deep red state, where her Democratic party primary contest could have gone to the more mainstream candidate.

Yet Jordan called charter schools “necessary,” while her opponent argued charters “have not lived up to their promise, they have been copycats of one another and they are a great deconsolidation of our school system, competing with traditional schools for funding… The best choice is the traditional public schools.”

Nevertheless, grassroots uprisings created by organized teachers are wooing more Democrats to support public schools. This is a noteworthy trend.

A Cool Embrace

For years, Democrats have not only been cool to embrace organized teachers; they’ve often been downright antagonistic. A sure sign that this relationship may be changing surfaced recently in North Carolina where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper joined teachers in the capital who had walked off the job and closed schools across the state to protest their poor pay and lack of resources in schools due to years of funding cuts.

Seeing an NC governor, of any party, standing with organized teachers during a strike action is unprecedented. The Tar Heel state is one of the most anti-labor states in the nation, not just because of recent Republican majorities in the legislature, but also because the state has been historically resistant to labor organizing regardless of which party is in control.

Cooper has also not always sided with workers. Yet, no former Democratic governor in recent memory – including education champion Jim Hunt – would have locked arms with organized teachers in union to close schools. The fact Cooper did sends an important message about where the Democratic party may be heading.

A Better Deal?

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., Democratic party leaders are pivoting from teacher walkouts across the nation to call for giving states and school districts $50 billion over a decade to fund teacher raises by canceling the recent tax cut for top 1 percent of earners.

The Democrats’ plan, called A Better Deal for Teachers and Students, calls for another $50 billion fund to pay for new school infrastructure.

During the unveiling of the plan, union presidents Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers joined Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the podium.

The scene prompted longtime Washington Post education journalist Valerie Strauss to recall when Barack Obama was president, his education secretary, Arne Duncan, was so unpopular that the NEA called for his resignation.

So given that Democrats, under a Trump administration, have little chance of pushing their proposal through, she questions whether this an example of the party making “nice with the leaders of teachers’ union.”

Whether Strauss’s skepticism is warranted or not, political dynamics in the Democratic party are clearly changing, and teacher uprisings are adding to the volatility of the mix.

If the Democratic wave that’s anticipated for November “won’t crest without progressive insurgents,” as some have observed, then maybe it also won’t crest without a change in how the party addresses education.

NC Teachers Rally To Make Lawmakers Listen To Them

Teachers in North Carolina made a huge statement this week when they shut down schools in at least 42 districts and thronged the state capital in an all-day march and rally that drew an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people – way more than the 15,000 the state teachers’ association, that organized the event, promised.

While their list of grievances was long and varied – from unmanageable class sizes to inadequate funding to stressed out work schedules – there was one theme that recurred when asked to explain what they hoped to accomplish.

“We hope our state legislators listen to us,” said Courtney Brown, a teacher at River Bend Elementary School in Wake County. “They need to understand there’s a problem, and things need to change.”

The “problem” teachers want to call attention to takes on many forms in their schools, depending on where the teachers work.

The Problems Only Teachers See

“We’re here today to bring lawmakers’ attention to what’s hurting children in our classrooms,” said Kathleen Van Kuren, a 29-year teacher veteran from Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex, also in Wake County. “While [lawmakers] underfunded resources for our students, cut resource personnel [such as reading assistants and special education teachers], and taken away longevity pay and other salary incentives for teachers, they’ve put more emphasis on charter schools and vouchers,” she said.

Other Wake County teachers offered a long list of complaints, including the loss of reading support teachers and outdated text books. “They tell us to let the kids use their own devices [smart phones or tablets], but in my school there are lots of children too poor to own their own device.”

“This is not about our salaries,” another Wake teacher told me. “Increasing our salary is on the bottom of my list.”

“There’s no funding for pencils, paper, or art supplies in my classroom,” said Jennifer Miske, a teacher at Rogers-Herr Middle School. “I’m always spending my own money for these things.” Tar Heel teachers typically spend $500 – $1,000 of their own money for classroom supplies their students need.

Her Durham County colleagues complained of out-of-date textbooks and aging, dirty school buildings that are no longer welcoming, or even safe, for children. “Sure, we could use a pay raise,” one said, “but our students come first.”

A group of teachers from Buncombe County and Asheville City schools, in the western part of the state, also talked of crumbling textbooks – the history books teach that Bill Clinton is president. State funding for textbooks has been slashed for the past four years.

Over-testing of students is also an issue for these teachers, especially in the elementary grades where third-graders are made to take as many as 17 assessments throughout the schoolyear.

A group of teachers from Orange County talked about, not only the inadequacy of school funding, but the inequity too. “I’ve taught in two districts,” one said, “one where there were no supplies, no technology for kids, and roach-infested, disgusting buildings, and one where we had what we needed for students. That’s not fair to kids.”

With exam season under say, these teachers also complained about the battery of required standardized tests their student have to take. “At least three of my students cry every day,” one teacher stated. As a special education teacher, she is assigned students who are most apt to struggle on the exams, yet she is evaluated based in part on how her students perform on the tests. “It’s demoralizing to the kids because they feel like failures. And It’s unfair to me.”

“The teachers at my school are the hardest working I’ve ever seen, but they’re too stressed out,” said Swansboro Middle School teacher Kim Caister, a veteran who has “taught all over the world.” She described harsh working conditions – including long hours, inadequate support personnel, and outdated, inadequate instructional materials and school facilities – that negatively affect teachers, which in turn, impact students.

Her Onslow County colleagues also complained about state lawmakers taking away long-term contracts [commonly called tenure] and the salary supplement teachers get for earning their Masters’ Degree. These incentives were taken away by the state legislature in 2014. The teachers pointed out that losing these incentives has made it more attractive for teachers to seek work in Virginia, which drains their schools of the most capable and qualified teachers.

“We need more and better staffing, like nurses, counselors, and other support personnel,” a group of Chatham County teachers said. (Many teachers preferred to speak in solidarity with their colleagues rather than have their names reported.) “We need to have our teacher assistants back.” State funding for teacher assistants was cut in 2008 and has not been fully restored since.

But in reporting about the teacher action in North Carolina, and elsewhere, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the flurry of specific issues with salaries, and pensions, and per-pupil expenditures, and forget what teachers say matters most: to “listen to us.”

What Teachers Want Most

“We’re here to open up a dialogue people haven’t been wanting to have,” Molly Wright, told me. Wright, a teacher at Millbrook High School, also in Wake County, is a second-generation teacher whose mother, a teacher in Forsyth County schools, accompanied her to the march. Wright explained, with a group of teachers around her nodding in approval, that nothing about what teachers were saying at the rally was new. What was new was that teachers had finally decided to go to drastic measures to make themselves heard.

“We had to close schools and disrupt people’s lives for them to pay attention,” she said. “We’re hoping to take the momentum we’re building here today and carry it over the summer and into November.”

Why does it take shutting down thousands of schools and inconveniencing millions of families to get political leaders’ attention? What is this “dialogue people haven’t been wanting to have”?

The gap between what goes on in schools and what gets decided in state capitals and Washington, DC has gotten way too wide.

For years, it’s been too easy for politicians to ignore teachers because teachers, by the very nature of their work, are discouraged from expressing their anger and sticking up for themselves.

Political leaders instead have relied on a very vocal and powerful faction of elite voices who created an education policy dialgue floating in a bubble far above the real lives of teachers. Instead of talking about what students need, they’ve focused on making teachers more “accountable.” Instead of emphasizing funding, they’ve called for “reform.”

The truth is people who’ve been deciding education policy have forgotten we live in a democracy. Teachers in North Carolina, and elsewhere, are reminding us of that.

Using the hashtags #Rally4Respect and “ItsPersonal, NC teachers were determined to raise the message that their voices need to be heard.

Many of the grievances they brought to the rally have been years in the making, a group of teachers from Gaston, Alamance, and Orange counties told me. But they’ve never believed they’ve had much power to change their circumstances. Until now.

“I’ve been teaching for 19 years,” one said, “and today feels, for the first time, like we have some power.”

Charter Schools Are An ‘Existential Threat’ To Public Education

Proclaiming May 6-12 National Charter Schools Week, President Trump led off a huge public relations campaign by the charter industry to ballyhoo the supposed success of these schools, although that success is a matter of bitter and ongoing dispute. But one outcome these mostly taxpayer-funded but privately-run schools certainly have is that they financially harm the public education system.

“The term ‘existential threat’ is way overused, but charters and vouchers really are a threat to the existence of public education,” Brad Miller tells me. Miller is a highly-rated practicing attorney and a former US House of Representative from North Carolina. While in office, he warned Congress of the risks of the subprime mortgage market in 2004, five years before that market melted and brought about the collapse of the housing loan and banking industry and the Great Recession.

The facts back Miller up.

The Costs of Charters to Public Schools

New studies from California and North Carolina find charter schools extract millions from the public systems.

The California study, written by political economist and University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer, looks at three large public-school systems in the Golden State and concludes the annual costs to the three districts run upwards of $142 million. The three districts in the study – Oakland Unified, San Diego Unified and East Side Union – struggle with annual deficits that have led to layoffs, class size increases, and program cuts.

The North Carolina study, written by Duke University economics professor Helen Ladd and University of Rochester professor John Singleton, finds evidence that charter schools come with “fiscal externalities,” or additional costs to the budgets of public schools. In their examination of urban and nonurban districts in the Tar Heel State, the researchers calculate an additional financial cost of about $3,500 per charter school enrollee to the Durham school district and “comparable or larger” costs to two non-urban districts.

Both studies note that additional costs imposed by charters are most apt to result in local schools cutting funding they need to maintain reasonable class sizes, well-rounded curriculums, and support staff including nurses, counselors, librarians, and special education

A Bad Fiscal Idea

Both studies trace the increased cost burdens imposed by charters to the same source.

As Lafer writes, “In every case [where charter schools have expanded], the revenue that school districts have lost is far greater than the expenses saved by students transferring to charter schools.”

Ladd and Singleton explain why: “If 10 percent of a district’s students shift to a charter school … the district cannot simply reduce its costs by 10 percent because some of its costs are fixed, especially in the short run.”

The NC researchers also point to costs that result from having parallel sectors of charter and public schools, which “implies duplication of functions and services (e.g., central office operations).” Also, the tendency of charter schools to open or close, often without warning, makes district budgeting uncertain and inefficient.

The costs school districts incur due to charter expansions are “unavoidable,” Lafer writes. “Because districts cannot turn students away, they must maintain a large enough school system to accommodate both long-term population growth and sudden influxes of unexpected students—as has happened when charter schools suddenly close down. The district’s responsibility for serving all students creates costs.”

An ‘Established Fact’ of Charters

Findings of these recent studies are in line with other studies.

A study on the impact of charter in Nashville estimated the net negative fiscal impact of charter school growth on the district’s public schools resulted in more than $300 million in direct costs to public schools over a five-year period.

Another study from Los Angeles found district public schools lost $591 million due to dropping enrollment rates among students who leave and go to charters.

A research study of school districts in Michigan concluded choice policies significantly contribute to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts. When the percent of students attending charter schools approaches 20 percent, there are sizable adverse impacts on district finances.

“What was once just rebutted as rhetoric is now increasingly becoming an established fact – charter schools are reducing the amount of funding that is spent on each student who remains in traditional public school,” University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black writes in his overview of the California and North Carolina studies.

What’s worse, Black argues in a different piece, “States are giving charter schools and private schools a better deal than public schools. These better deals have fueled enormous growth in charter schools and voucher programs that is now nearly impossible to unwind.”

The negative impact of this drain on public school coffers is felt most acutely by students and teachers, of course, especially those who live in low-income, nonwhite communities that are already feeling the brunt of depleted resources.

But warnings of the negative fiscal impact imposed by charter schools are also coming from a very different group of people: investors.

Investor Concerns About Charters

At the same time California and North Carolina charter studies were released, a Texas newspaper reported some of the state’s largest public finance firms were pulling business away from charter schools over concerns about these schools undermining the financial standing of public school districts and the continued soundness of investments in the financing of public schools.

“Charter schools increase the cost of public education in Texas by over $600 million per year,” one investment firm warned its investors in its explanation of why the company was pulling business away from the charter sector.

Investor squeamishness over the rapid expansion of the charter sector has been rising for years.

“The dramatic rise in charter school enrollments over the past decade is likely to create negative credit pressure on school districts in economically weak urban areas,” a report from Moody’s Investors Service warned in 2013.

Mindful of the Moody’s report, Brad Miller wrote last year for Verdict that Moody’s reduced Detroit Public Schools’ credit rating from B3 to Caa1, two notches above imminent default, specifically because of the “growing charter school presence.” He notes that despite the expanding charter sector in the district, charters are not responsible for any of district’s debts should the cost burden of these schools result in financial problems for the district.

Miller argues investors who backed loans to the district’s public schools will now see the value of their investments eroding due to the influx of charters. Due to charters, he argues, “Public schools lost funds for fixed costs, including debt service for bonds to pay for school construction, renovation, and equipment to serve the expected enrollment.”

His advice to Investors in public school bonds is to consider legal action against charter-friendly state legislation on the basis that such policies may violate the Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But Charter Schools Are Public, Right?

Charter school advocates tend to counter any claims that their schools harm public schools by contending “charters are public schools too.”

While it’s true charters are public schools in that they take taxpayer funds, legal defenses of any claims made against these schools tend to play fast and loose with the exact status, public or private, of these schools.

As Houston Public Media reports, recent lawsuits in Texas involving charter schools have surfaced the ever-changing definition of the status of these schools. After examining a series of cases involving charters, the article concludes, “Charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.

Similarly, in legal proceedings in California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, charter school supporters have used private legal status to evade federal and state statutory requirements that apply to public entities.

Charters as Parasites

Despite what may have been the original intention of the charter school movement, these schools, as they are currently conceived and operate, now pose a severe financial risk to public education. Rather than operating as partners to public schools, they more so resemble parasites.

To address this growing calamity, Lafer recommends in his California study that each school district produce an annual Economic Impact report assessing the cost of charter expansion in its community, and local and state public officials take findings of these impact assessments into account when deciding whether to authorize additional charters.

Ladd and Singleton in their North Carolina study recommend states provide transitional aid to smooth or mitigate revenue losses charter school expansions impose on school districts. They point to examples of these policies in New York and Massachusetts, although they admit, “In neither case does the magnitude of the aid offset the full negative fiscal impacts of charters.”

Getting fair-minded public officials to consider these or other practical steps should not be hard politically.

“Most Americans do not regard public schools as insidious socialism and teachers as union goons,” says Miller. “This is not an issue on which we should be in retreat.”

The Right Lashes Out at Uprising Teachers

UPDATED

As mass teacher walkouts and protests ebb in Arizona and Colorado, bold new actions are ramping up in North Carolina. This spring’s teacher uprisings may well last through the end of this school year.

On the whole, teachers across the nation have strung together an impressive series of victories, including salary raises, pension reforms, and school funding increases. And teachers have vowed to take their unmet demands into November elections to contest their opponents at the ballot box.

But the instincts of retribution that tend to drive rightwing politicians and their operatives have already spurred them to craft ways to strike back against teachers.

Rightwing Retributions

Even during the walkouts, Republican lawmakers and their supporters have tried to intimidate and silence teachers. But these teacher uprisings have a widely accepted moral standing that will be very difficult for their opponents to undermine, despite the big money aimed at opposing teachers.

Leading into the two-day teacher walkout in Colorado, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would lead to fines and potentially up to six month’s jail time for the striking teachers. The bill was pulled, when it became clear even some Republicans weren’t too keen on the measure.

In Arizona, a libertarian think tank sent letters to school district superintendents threatening them with lawsuits if they didn’t reopen closed schools and order striking teachers to return to work. It’s unclear how or whether the threat will actually be carried out should teachers continue the walkouts if lawmakers fail to pass a budget. [UPDATE: Arizona news outlets report Arizona teachers may head back to their classrooms after the governor signed a budget bill gives teachers a 10 percent pay raise with promises of more in the future.]

In West Virginia, where teachers used a nine-day strike to secure a five percent raise, Republicans have vowed to get their revenge by cutting $20 million to Medicaid and other parts of the state budget to pay for the increase. No doubt, when the axe falls on these programs, Republican lawmakers will be quick to blame the “greedy” teachers.

In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin accused striking teachers of leaving children exposed to sexual assaults or being in danger of ingesting toxic substances because teachers weren’t at school. Now that the uprising has ended, Bevin has turned his revenge against teachers into an effort to take over the largest school system in the state and take away local control of the schools.

A Zero for DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in her contribution to the right-wing backlash against teachers, has spurned the strikes as being about “adults’ interests,” and scolded teachers for not thinking about “what’s best for kids.” In her recent, closed-door meeting with Teachers of the Year from across the country, she “expressed opposition to teachers going on strike for more education funding,” HuffPost’s Rebecca Klein reports.

When the Arizona Teacher of the Year asked the Secretary about her views of the strikes, DeVos reportedly told her she preferred that “adults would take their disagreements and solve them not at the expense of kids and their opportunity to go to school and learn.”

“For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment,” one of the teachers told Klein. “That is so far from what is happening.”

The Rightwing Messaging Guide

Indeed, the Right’s counteroffensive to teacher uprisings extends beyond the affected states.

The Guardian reports about a “messaging guide” conceived by a network of libertarian think tanks that conveys tips for how to portray the walkouts as “harmful to low-income parents and their children.”

The manual, entitled “How to Talk About Teacher Strikes,” has “dos and dont’s,” including the claims, “Teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families,” and, “It’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children.”

The guide is provided by the State Policy Network, a network of 66 rightwing think tanks funded by the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, the DeVos family, the Bradley Foundation, and other conservative megadonors.

Other talking points included in the guide are to “emphasize the damage done to ‘good’ teachers by the strikes” and counter claims of education funding cuts by calling out money being spent on “red tape and bureaucracy” and “administrators and other non-teaching staff.”

‘Union-Led Shenanigans’

This advice from SPN is already being taken to heart by conservative operatives like the Center for Education Reform, a pro-privatization organization and SPN member pushing for charter school and vouchers.

In a press release, CER warns of the “true nature of these protests and ramifications of supporting union backed rallies, walkouts, and strikes.”

The release quotes CER leader Jeanne Allen saying, “the real fight” is not whether teachers are paid well enough and schools are adequately funded but how to “ensure money follows students and doesn’t continue to get wasted on a bloated bureaucracy and top-heavy school districts that have grown dramatically faster than enrollment.”

Allen also riffs off the SPN manual by claiming walkouts are “union-building activities, pushing charter school teachers to follow them, while at the same time fighting to limit the growth of charters, impose restrictions and, worst of all, fighting to make sure charters are funded at lower levels than traditional schools.”

In its weekly newsletter, CER smears the walkouts as “union-led shenanigans” and argues, “The unions want to make teacher pay a defining issue. But it’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be.”

The Real Defining Issue

What is happening, which is hard for these critics to undermine, is that teachers are not making their pay the defining issue of their uprising. Contrary to what Betsy DeVos asserts, they’re focused on improving the lives of their students.

Indeed, they are asking for what their students really need: Teachers who aren’t distracted, stressed out, and spiritually spent because of poor wages and lack of affordable healthcare or retirement security. Schools that aren’t bereft of teaching materials, textbooks, and safe and functioning facilities; and full support of public services that have positive impacts on how well students achieve in schools.

The Kentucky Teachers’ Walkout Was A Catalyst For More Advocacy

Headlines about teachers’ strikes may have moved on from Kentucky and Oklahoma to Arizona and Colorado, but rebellions teachers who started these uprisings have not, at least according to numerous sources I’ve spoken with in Louisville – Kentucky’s largest school district with over 100,000 students.

Kentucky was where teachers staged widespread “sick-outs” to protest state lawmakers’ handling of pension reform and school funding. After teachers won record new spending for public education in the state and then pushed legislators to override the governor’s veto of the bill, there were still plenty of vows from teachers to “keep fighting” for a permanent pension fix and more new revenue sources for schools. But would they?

“The pension fight woke everyone up,” says Tiffany Dunn, a National Board Certified middle school English as a second language teacher, who has helped found and lead a number of grassroots teacher advocacy groups including Save Our Schools Kentucky.

“Before that, hardly anyone knew or cared” about a range of issues Dunn sees as new targets for teacher activism, including the state governor’s recent actions to stack the state education board with new appointees and a new leader who are charter school advocates. “Most teachers thought [these issues were] just a JCPS thing,” she says, referring to Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Louisville and the surrounding county. But now she sees that teachers who first engaged on the pension issue are turning their attention to “all the issues.”

Recent actions state lawmakers have taken, including passing new legislation to bring charter schools to the state, “could have been stopped if we had the current level of activism,” Dunn believes. “But now at least people are aware.”

“The pension fight was a catalyst,” says Brent McKim, the leader of the Jefferson County Teachers Association. “Also, the West Virginia teachers,” he adds, who had previous to the Kentucky uprising, staged a successful strike in their state to win a five-percent pay raise for all public employees, limits on charter school expansions, and other demands.

The teachers’ victory in West Virginia “was a seminal moment for teachers,” McKim tells me. “It gave them a sense of possibility that if we act collectively, we can make a difference.”

McKim readily admits the wildcat nature of the strike was a challenge for union leaders as well. Because the driving proponents of the teachers’ actions consisted mostly of groups formed on social media, union leaders were often confounded in their efforts to maintain control and the accuracy of information.

“People jump to conclusions,” McKim says, based on hearsay they read online about where the union was or was not engaged in the ongoing conflict with state lawmakers. McKim sees that some teachers currently have an “inherent distrust of the establishment,” which includes the union.

“Skepticism is healthy in any democracy,” he adds, “but we did some pretty remarkable things” by increasing funding for schools. Now he sees teachers moving on to other important battles, including taking their battles “to the ballot box,” he says. “We’re printing yard signs that say “Remember in November'” to remind teachers to vote for political leaders who support public schools and teachers.

The coming fight at the ballot box includes not only voting for candidates but running for office. A public school advocate running for office I spoke with in Louisville is Gay Adelman, who is trying to become the next State Senator for District 36, which includes part of the JCPS district.

Adelmann’s public school advocacy started in 2012 when she enrolled her son in a local school she came to see as underfunded and overly penalized by the state for having too many struggling students whose backgrounds of poverty and trauma were often reflected in their low scores on state standardizes tests.

Students in the school, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) magnet school located in the city’s predominantly African-American West End community, “needed common-sense barriers to learning removed” – including facility improvements, new learning materials, and technology improvements – that better resourced school usually can address.

And she saw that too many good, experienced teachers and school leaders would come and go to avoid the consequence that come from working in an “underperforming” school.

To address these and other challenges in the school, Adelmann helped form a PTA in the school, and she eventually founded Dear JCPS, in 2015, to address similar issues she saw in her school across the district. Now, she’s taking bolder action to not just react to state education policy but to help write it.

“I decided to run for office because my own State Senator told me she was pro public education, but then she turned around and voted for the state’s new charter school law,” she tells me. “My experience at my school drives what I will try to get done in the legislature.”

She wants to see more funding for public schools rather than having funds redirected to new charters. And she wants to see the unfairness of high-stakes standardized testing addressed. “My kids do well on these standardized tests,” she says, “but we need more supports in schools to help with the issues that affect students who don’t do well on the tests.”

She complains of “privileged white men” and “elites” in state office, with no experience in public schools, who won’t “go into these schools to see” the conditions teachers are having to deal with.

“While they may be well-intended,” she argues, their opinions of public schools and teacher are too often “piecemeal or ideological and not at all based on facts and evidence.”

Should she win, one of the first things she pledges to push for would be to form a caucus in the state legislature to write and pass new legislation devoted solely to support public schools.

Adelmann may have lots of like-minded colleagues ready to join her caucus. “At least 40 educators have filed to run for office,” The Hill reports.

[This report is in partnership with the Network for Public Education.]

Why Teacher Uprisings May Hit Blue States Too

Surprising results from a new survey of teachers reveal the depth of “financial strain” classroom professionals face. These include high levels of college debt, stagnation of already subpar pay, increasing housing and childcare costs, rising health insurance premiums and prescription costs, and escalating out-of-pocket expenses for their own classroom supplies.

More than half of the respondents resorted to second jobs to try to close the gap between what their teaching jobs paid versus their actual cost of living.

The revelation teachers are financially struggling wasn’t what was surprising about the survey. Recent news of teacher “red-state rebellions” in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona have brought great depths of attention to the economic plight of teachers who are walking off the job in Republican dominated states because of years of education funding cuts. No, what was surprising about this survey was the teachers weren’t in a red state at all; they were in true-blue Vermont.

The sad truth is financial austerity that has driven governments at all levels to skimp on education has had plenty of compliance, if not downright support, from centrist Democrats who’ve spent most of their political capital on pressing an agenda of “school reform” and “choice” rather than pressing for increased funding and support that schools and teachers need.

Colorado Uprising

In a startling sign that teacher uprisings may move to purple and blue states too, Colorado teachers recently left schools and stormed the state capitol to protest their subpar wages – ranked 46th in the nation, reports the New York Times, and “rock bottom” when compared to other professionals in the state. “Colorado has a Democratic governor,” notes the Times, “and a Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans.”

Soon after their rally at the capitol, teachers in Denver, the state’s largest school system, announced a systemwide walkout on April 27. The next day, administrators in the state’s second largest district, Jefferson County, announced their schools would close a day earlier on the 26th in anticipation of teachers not showing up for work.

Since the Great Recession in 2009, Colorado has had one of the best performing economies in the nation, but school funding has increased only 3.4 percent above 2008 levels according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Much of the school funding woes can be traced to the enactment of a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) constitutional amendment in 1992 that severely limits school funding. Democrats have done little to try to repeal or devise workarounds to the amendment, and centrist Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper recently declared he “can’t imagine” TABOR being repealed.

Another school funding can Colorado Democrats keep kicking down the road arises from a constitutional amendment, Amendment 23, passed in 2000 that was designed to boost and protect K-12 funding but was subsequently limited when state coffers shrank in 2009. (Funny how amendments to increase school funding can be quickly undone while those limiting funding can’t.)

In his final state of the state speech, term-limited Governor Hickenlooper called for more education funding but blamed “voters” for lack of action on that front. Then, his final budget proposed $5.5 million more for charter schools.

Subsequently, Democrats in the state legislature spent considerably more energy staving off further cuts to education, rather than pushing for bold efforts to increase funding. What ultimately passed with “broad bipartisan support” barely raises funding but also mandates school districts share locally-raised tax money with state-created charters.

Saying No to Centrism

The Colorado teachers’ plans to walk out of school is a strong sign they’ve had it with state government inaction on funding. There’s also a sign many Colorado Democrats feel that way too.

At the most recent state assembly of the Colorado Democratic party, delegates sent a strong rebuke to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, demanding the organization cease to use “Democrats” in its name, Chalkbeat reports.

The platform amendment, passed overwhelmingly by the delegates, opposed the group’s intentions of “making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts.”

This rebuke has significant ramifications for the Democratic party and the direction of education policy not only in Colorado but nationwide.

“Democrats for Education Reform, founded more than a decade ago, was at the center of a split within the Democratic Party over school reform that began to play out with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama,” explains Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post. The organization’s embrace of traditionally Republican education policies – including charter schools, vouchers, standardized testing, and enforced closure of neighborhood schools – instead of funding schools and supporting teachers, had the effect of wiping away “the traditional partisan divide over education policy,” she argues.

Now there are growing signs Democrats want to bring those traditional partisan distinctions back.

Where Next?

A recent analysis by Brookings spotlights North Carolina and Mississippi as the most likely states for the next teacher uprising. Other candidates include Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah.

It’s interesting that analysis, likely completed a few days before trouble started brewing in Colorado, doesn’t have that state on the list.

Now Watch Republicans Blame Obama for Test Scores

One of the more interesting stories about the recent release of scores on the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress (aka. The Nation’s Report Card) is not about the scores themselves but the way conservative education policy operatives are spinning them.

The scores themselves were disappointing.

As US News reports, fourth- and eighth-graders, the only two grades tested, “made little to no gains in math and reading since 2015,” the last year the NAEP was conducted. “While the average reading scores for eighth-graders increased compared with 2015, there were no changes for reading at fourth grade or for math at either grade.”

Not only were scores flat, as they have mostly been since 2009, but “the latest results reveal a disturbing trend in which the country’s poorest-performing students scored worse in both subjects.”

The 2017 scores were not as bad as scores in 2015, which showed statistically significant dips, but the general lack of progress in this year’s results gave education policy mavens fodder to make all sorts of claims.

Who’s to Blame

Education pundits from the right were quick to locate the cause of such a prolonged stagnation.

Mike Petrilli of the conservative Beltway policy shop Thomas B. Fordham dubbed NAEP doldrums “the lost decade,” which, by his reckoning, would take the timeline for stagnant NAEP scores back to 2008. And we all know what happened that year.

The arch-conservative Heritage Foundation is much more blunt, saying, “The scores are a particular indictment of Obama-era education policies, including historically high levels of spending, the addition of new programs, numerous federal directives, and perhaps most consequentially, Common Core.”

What’s downright laughable is the preposterous notion that the nation’s supposedly anemic academic achievement began immediately as the Obama administration took office. All those nine- and thirteen-year-olds who generated flat scores from 2009 to 2015 spent precious little of their academic careers under the Obama regime.

Indeed, if we were to play the pin the NAEP tail on the presidential donkey, we would be looking at that guy who proceeded Obama – George W. Bush.

And that’s what’s so ironic about conservative claims of an Obama education policy failure. Over at least the past 20 years, whether under Republican oversight or Democratic, the nation’s schools have been lorded over by an “education reform” agenda that has always been decidedly bipartisan.

Both Parties

The chronology of education reform’s widespread impact on the nation’s schools begins with the enactment in 2002 of No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan law that began the regime of requiring states to test every student every year in reading and math and using the scores to evaluate schools and determine all sorts of consequences as a result of their scores.

The Obama administration upped the ante by using test scores to evaluate teachers too and developed even more elaborate actions to take when schools had poor results.

Throughout both presidential administrations, there was an assumption that stoking the system with more charter schools to compete with public schools would yield improvements, and although Common Core curriculum standards pushed by Obama became a flashpoint of dispute, both Democrats and Republicans insisted schools needed some sort of “higher standards” to “raise the bar” for students.

Sure, there were lots of policy nuances over the years that may have divided the parties – including the extent of the federal government’s influence on implementation of the policies – but the test-and-punish, standards enforced, and market-base competition philosophy of reform was a Washington Consensus uniting both parties.

MisNAEPery

It’s not surprising conservatives would bend NAEP results to an agenda.

Scores are often used to justify or vilify whatever education policy the author prefers.

Because scores are broken down by student demographics and reported out for the nation as a whole, for each state and the District of Columbia, and more recently, for many large municipal school districts, there is a wealth of speculative conclusions that can be derived.

This is not to say NAEP scores are useless. But there’s a whole genre of education punditry called “misNAEPery” that exemplifies the way scores are used to make false claims about what “works” in schools.

For instance, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used NAEP results for Tennessee from 2009 to 2013 to claim the state’s embrace of reform policies he preferred  – including basing teacher evaluations on test scores and turning over struggling schools to charter management organizations – was proof his reform policies were working. But the claim was roundly debunked by more careful observers, and the state’s scores were flat in 2015 and somewhat down this year.

Similarly this year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called out NAEP results in Florida, a state she has long touted as a model for other states to follow. Yet many states with education policies similar to Florida’s – including vouchers, charter schools, and performance grades for schools – had lackluster NAEP results in 2017, including Arizona, Louisiana, and North Carolina.

But why would Republicans reject reform now?

Stealing Away from Reform

“Educators, scholars and policymakers now almost universally regard No Child Left Behind as a washout,” writes education historian and college professor Jack Schneider. “And many critiques of Obama-era reform efforts have been equally blistering.”

DeVos has made it clear she believes nothing Obama or Bush did in education reform really worked. States ruled by Republican governors are abandoning Obama-era test-based teacher evaluations right and left. And influential Beltway education policy poohbahs have posted reflective tomes in which they admit they may have gotten some things about reform wrong.

Meanwhile, Democrats like Arne Duncan fight a rearguard battle to defend reform policies, performing feats of MisNAEPery including going all the way back to 1971 to conflate strong growth in test scores in the 80s and 90s with the general stagnation since 2000.

So, it’s clear Republicans are stealing away from reform and leaving Democrats holding the bag. Recent NAEP scores give them the perfect opportunity to make their case.

 

 

Striking Teachers Are Fighting for Communities

Teacher strikes that started in West Virginia and are now raging in Oklahoma and whipping up in Kentucky and Arizona are being called a “nationwide movement.” But a nationwide movement for what?

The Wall Street Journal calls the teacher rebellions a “response to years of steep cuts to state education budgets.” Similar articles in other outlets make the argument that because strikes are currently confined to “teachers in states governed by Republicans,” they are mostly about challenging “GOP austerity.”

While there is much more than a grain of truth to these observations, they are short-sighted.

These striking teachers, in saying “We’ve had enough,” are taking a stand  not only about their own financial situations, but also about the conditions of their students, their schools, and their communities.

These teachers – who span the political spectrum – are taking their grievances beyond the normal confines of partisan politics and labor disputes to decry the dire conditions in struggling communities across the nation. Their ultimate aim is to have an effect at the ballot box.

Uniting a Range of Issues

For sure, a theme uniting the strikes is the need to pay teachers more and fix their broken health insurance and retirement programs. And for good reason.

As the Economic Policy Institute reports, teachers “are burdened by growing pay inequities. Over the last two decades, teachers are contributing more and more toward health care and retirement costs as their pay falls further behind. Teacher pay (accounting for inflation) actually fell by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124.”

But teachers who are striking “are concerned with a range of issues,” EPI reports, and their grievances have been calling attention to much more of the problems in our communities.

Striking for Communities

Since the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, teachers have been aligning their labor actions to the tenets of social-justice unionism that extend teacher grievances beyond the defense of their own wage and benefits to fighting for the rights and needs of students and the broader community.

What followed the Chicago strike was a series of generally successful strikes where teachers embedded their demands for better pay with calls for improving the learning conditions of students and increasing community-enhancing supports in schools.

In 2014, teacher unions in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota averted threatened strikes and won significant contract struggles by asserting a bargaining platform based on “the schools our students deserve” and increased supports for struggling students and families, including expansions of pre-kindergarten programs and smaller classes.

In 2015, striking teachers in Seattle not only won increased salaries, but they also were successful in winning student-centered demands for recess, discipline reform, and physical and mental health supports. These were school improvements parents also demanded.

In 2018, St. Paul teachers again averted a strike and won their negotiations, not only for wage increases, but also for student-centered issues, including reducing class sizes, improving education services for English learners and special education students, and funding the implementation of restorative practices – an approach to school discipline that focuses on reconciliation rather than harsh punishments.

Similarly, striking teachers across the nation this year are making demands that go far beyond wages and benefits.

Beyond Wages and Benefits

The wage and benefit demands West Virginia teachers made were accompanied by demands for a five-percent pay raise for all public employees, a realistic commitment from the state to address a broken public employee health insurance program, limits on charter school expansions, and the ability of all public employee unions to deduct dues through payroll collection.

The Oklahoma strike demands also go beyond issues of teacher pay to propose increased taxes on the states’ oil and gas industry so all schools can return to five day weeks, reduce class sizes, renew outdated textbooks, and address chronic teacher shortages.

There’s evidence that public opinion in Oklahoma aligns with the teachers. A recent poll conducted by the Oklahoma association of teachers found, “93 percent of Oklahomans believe the state legislature has not done enough to increase funding for Oklahoma students and public schools. Public support continues to be strong for teachers at 77 percent, while support for the state legislature (17 percent) and Governor [Mary] Fallin at (18 percent) remains very low. The poll also found public support for the walk-out is increasing.”

Seizing Political Power

The message from the current round of teacher strikes is that not only have governing policies made teachers an unappreciated, underpaid workforce, but that lawmakers have forced teachers into becoming first responders on the front lines of communities that are being disinvested and decimated.

Students who are increasingly living in impoverished households are bringing the problems of increasing wage inequality and a declining healthcare system into classrooms while teachers have fewer resources to deal with those problems.

The teacher strikes currently taking place are in states where children are among the most under privileged in the nation. None of these states rank high in health care, and wage growth is exceedingly slow.

Thus, the strikes are an understandable response as teachers in these states are increasingly challenged to deal with the fallout of political systems that are negligent of the student populations they have to serve. It’s no wonder teachers are making their voices heard and calling on allies to come to their support.

Politicians Take Heed

Striking teachers have an eye on November elections.

The strikes, Dana Goldstein observes for the New York Times, “are occurring in states and districts with important midterm races in November, suggesting that thousands of teachers, with their pent-up rage over years of pay freezes and budget cuts, are set to become a powerful political force this fall.”

Teachers in West Virginia made a point of saying their protests were about making a difference at the ballot box. And teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona are making lawmakers in those states choose between demands for lower taxes and smaller government versus upholding the needs of students and communities.

Striking teachers are making it very plain the nationwide movement they represent is reflective of widespread feelings everywhere that political governance has gotten woefully out of touch with what the vast majority of people want. What’s not clear is if politicians will listen.

Democrats Can Win if They Lead on Education

While progressives lament their recent failure in an Illinois primary to knock out Dan Lipinski – a conservative, anti-abortion, Congressional Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act – they mostly fail to note where and how they won elsewhere in the state.

Zaid Jiani reports for The Intercept that there were numerous progressive “upstart candidates” further down the ballot in Illinois who beat more established Democrats, including Aaron Ortiz in a State House race, Fritz Kaegi for Cook County Assessor, and Brandon Johnson in a Cook County Commissioner contest. Delia Ramirez also won running as a progressive in a State House primary without an incumbent.

These victors had a number of things in common, including endorsements from labor unions and progressive advocacy organizations. But another startling commonality among at least three of the four candidates was a strong support for public schools – Ortiz, Ramirez, and Johnson all made increased funding for public schools key stances in their races. Ortiz and Johnson are public school teachers, and Ramirez pledged to “protect our public-school system from corporate interests which attack teachers and students to destabilize public neighborhood schools and profit from privatizing education.”

Contrast the victors’ strong stances for public schools to Lipinski’s failed challenger, Marie Newman, whose education platform was about “education that leads to real jobs” – a position suitable for a Republican candidate to run on.

Education First

These examples from Illinois align with electoral contests around the country.

In high-profile Democratic party primaries, education has become a significant issue that progressive candidates are using to challenge more conservative, establishment Democrats. There’s also ample evidence education could be a key issue for Democrats to use against their Republican opponents in midterm general elections in November.

But getting the education issue right – something Democrats have not been very good at – will be key.

Education is definitely on voters’ minds. According to a recent survey by Pew Research, 72 percent of the American public rank education as a top priority for the country, behind only one other issue, terrorism, and ahead of the economy and healthcare.

Further, with the ascension of the deeply unpopular Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to President Trump’s cabinet, Democrats are making her an issue in state and local elections and invoking her name in fundraising emails to whip up opposition to centrist Democrats and Republicans.

Virginia, New York and California

Education is already a key issue in Virginia where Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam beat former Congressional Representative Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary in part because Northam has been strongly committed to funding public schools while Perriello has courted the charter school industry.

With education as Virginia voters’ “top concern,” according to at least one poll, Northam went on to win the governor’s race against a Republican opponent tagged as a “clone of Betsy DeVos.”

Education is also a prominent issue in Democratic contests for governor in New York and California.

In the Empire State, actress and public school advocate Cynthia Nixon is challenging sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic party primary. So far, she has aimed her attacks on Cuomo mostly at the chronic under-funding of public schools that has taken place under his regime and his cooperation with state Republican senators who are now pushing to fund school safety measures that include more armed guards in schools rather than counselors and other student supports.

In the primary contest for governor of California, education could be the deciding factor among the three top candidates, former Los Angles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and State Treasurer John Chiang – all Democrats (California’s primary elections have a top-two design that virtually ensures no Republicans will be in the general election).

Big money interests that back the state’s charter school industry have coalesced behind Villaraigosa while Newsom and Chiang have called for more charter school accountability.

The power of education to be a determining factor in primary contests also holds true for elections where Democrats face Republicans.

A Way to Beat Republicans

Democrats, and even many Republicans, are expecting 2018 to be a wave election favoring blue candidates

Democrats can indeed deliver a beating to Republicans in the 2018 mid-term: since the Civil War, the President’s party, with the exception of two years, has lost seats in both the House and the Senate in midterm elections.

At the state level, this could also be a year of big changes. Of the ninety-nine state chambers in the U.S., eighty-seven are in play. The total number of potential contested seats is 6,066—about 82 percent of the nation’s state legislative seats, over 100 more than were contested in 2016. And thirty-six gubernatorial seats will be up for grabs—there were only 11 in 2016.

Republicans have made themselves especially vulnerable on the issue of school funding by imposing years of financial austerity on schools. Aware of this vulnerability, Republican governors in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere are already flipping their austerity scripts to highlight what budget increases they have pushed in their states, even though these increases still haven’t brought education funding up to pre-recession levels of 2008.

A good indicator of an oncoming blue wave continues to be the number of special elections where Democratic candidates have flipped a Republican seat to their party’s side – at least 39 state legislative races so far.

in a much-publicized upset win for a Democratic candidate in a Wisconsin special election to replace an incumbent Republican State Senator in a strong pro-Trump district, former school board member Patty Schachtner made education her top issue, campaigning to “restore funding for our local schools” and “maintain curriculum, services, and extracurricular opportunities for our kids.”

In another example of a Democrat flipping a traditionally GOP-held office, Margaret Good triumphed over her Republican opponent for a Florida State House seat in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 13,000. Good made support for education a top issue, with pledges to “ensure that our public schools are fully funded … to provide wrap-around services at local schools,” and to oppose “taxpayer dollars to fund for-profit charter schools.”

In a Kentucky House special election, former teacher Linda Belcher flipped the seat from Republican to Democratic in part by pledging to secure more funding for local public schools and infrastructure. The district had gone for Trump over Hillary Clinton by 72 percent to 23 percent.

in Conor Lamb’s winning campaign to upset a Republican in a Congressional special election in a deeply conservative Pennsylvania district he used an ad in which he talked about his brother and sister serving as school teachers but not getting the respect that he got for being in the military.

A Winning Issue If …

Education is the Democratic party’s “winning issue hiding in plain sight,” writes New York Times columnist David Leonhardt.

Leonhardt points to the Senate special election in Alabama where Democratic upstart Doug Jones beat Trump-backed conservative firebrand Roy Moore. He cites the effectiveness of an ad run by the Jones campaign that appealed to voters’ high priority for education.

But Leonhardt demonstrates his consistently poor grasp of education issues when he recommends, based on his observations of the Jones campaign, that Democrats pledge their support for “big, ambitious ideas” such as “universal preschool” and “universal tuition-free community college.”

However, the ad he lauds clearly doesn’t confine education to the early and post-secondary years. And what, pray tell, should Democrats propose for the 13 years in between pre-K and college?

Similarly, the Center for American Progress, in anticipation of a Democratic sweep in the 2018 elections, recently outlined “7 great education policy ideas for progressives in 2018” that are mostly reflective of lefty pundits and policy makers rather than what’s percolating from the ground up from voters and the campaigns run by progressive Democrats.

For instance, CAP’s proposals for paying teachers more, fixing decaying school buildings, and creating safe and healthy school environments seem in line with grassroots education advocates, but curiously absent from CAP’s “great ideas” are proposals to adequately and equitably fund schools across the board, create more community schools with wraparound services for disadvantaged kids, and resist the creeping privatization of public education through the charter school industry and school voucher programs.

Grassroots progressive Democrats are telling the party’s establishment how it can lead and win on education issues. What’s not clear is if the party’s pundit and policy apparatus is willing to listen.