Education Opportunity Network

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Progressives Lost The Vote On DeVos But Won Something Else

Betsy DeVos may have won her contest in the Senate to become the new U.S. Secretary of Education, but her opposition wasn’t the only thing that went down to defeat that day.

For decades, federal education policies have been governed by a “Washington Consensus” that public schools are effectively broken, especially in low-income communities of color, and the only way to fix them is to apply a dose of tough love and a business philosophy of competition from charter schools and performance measurements based on standardized tests.

Since the 1990s, this consensus among Democrats and Republicans has enforced all kinds of unproven “reform” mandates on schools, and by 2012, as veteran education reporter Jay Mathews of The Washington Post noted that year, the two parties were “happily copying each other” on education.

“Democrats have in recent years sounded – and acted – a lot like Republicans in advancing corporate education reform, which seeks to operate public schools as if they were businesses, not civic institutions,” writes Valerie Strauss, the veteran education journalist who blogs for the Washington Post. “By embracing many of the tenets of corporate reform — including the notion of ‘school choice’ and the targeting of teachers and their unions as being blind to the needs of children – they helped make DeVos’s education views, once seen as extreme, seem less so.”

But with the election of President Donald Trump and the ascension of DeVos to secretary, that consensus appears dead.

“She would start her job with no credibility,” Education Week quotes Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. “A vote for Betsy DeVos is a vote for a secretary of education who is likely to succeed only in further dividing us on education issues.”

“The DeVos vote reflected the tribal, dysfunctional, polarized nature of our politics,” writes Woodrow Wilson Center senior scholar Linda Killian in USA Today. “It is a harbinger of things to come.”

But what looks like the death of a political consensus on education could be the beginning of something else: an opportunity for progressives to press a new education agenda. Here’s what should they do.

Build On ‘The Perfect Storm’

Public education advocates have long been exasperated with progressives.

“When will ‘progressives’ defend public education?” fumed education activist Anthony Cody nearly two years ago. Cody – who helped organize the largest public protest event in support of public education to date and co-founded the Network for Public Education whose membership recently passed the 300,000 mark – lamented that while big money, astroturf groups such as Democrats for Education Reform continue to present the left as a partner of charter schools and corporate reform, progressive organizations generally remain silent on the issues.

These organizations “need to wake up,” Cody argued.

Well, consider them awake.

The DeVos nomination motivated an array of progressive groups to engage in the unprecedented outpouring of opposition to her. Similarly, civil rights organizations, that often differ with public education activists on charter schools and school vouchers, led a strong effort to oppose DeVos.

“DeVos’ nomination was simply the perfect storm for progressives and members of the resistance to seize upon,” observes Lucia Graves at The Guardian. “The voter outrage was the triumph of grassroots organizing. And that is worth celebrating – despite the outcome.”

Now that progressive organizations are engaged in the fight against DeVos, public school advocates must continue to reach out to them and engage them in the ongoing fight against privatization DeVos will lead. In turn, public school advocates must also be ready to step outside the education silo and take up other causes progressives care about, such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, that have impacts both inside and outside of schools.

Turn Education Into A Wedge Issue

For years, big money donors have been successful at keeping many Democratic party candidates in the charter school camp. Opposition to DeVos may disrupt that loyalty.

For instance, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has been an ardent supporter of charters and vouchers and has deep ties to the charter school industry, yet he voted against DeVos.

Booker, who many consider a possible presidential contender in 2020, joined DeVos on the board of Alliance for School Choice, when he was mayor of Newark.* In 2012, he gave a speech at a meeting held by the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group DeVos founded and once chaired. Both organizations advocate using taxpayer dollars for charter, private, and religious schools, which DeVos will surely champion. Yet Booker sided with his fellow Democrats against her.

Westcoast billionaire Eli Broad is another prominent Democrat who advocates for school choice but strongly opposed DeVos. “This is more than just one billionaire school activist … going against another billionaire school activist,” Strauss writes in another of her blog posts. “His opposition underscores what has been obvious for some time: that the opposition to DeVos goes far beyond the teachers’ unions.”

Of course, not all Democrats who’ve been supportive of the corporate reform movement made strong public statements in opposition to DeVos.

As reporters for Education Week note, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who once received praise from DeVos for his support for charter schools, was reluctant to publically criticize her during her nomination.

Cuomo recently announced his intention to abolish the cap that limits the number of charter schools in New York City, despite Mayor Bill De Blasio’s strong opposition – a proposal Secretary DeVos will certainly praise. Given the Democratic party’s total antipathy for DeVos, public school advocates can now easily pivot from opposing DeVos to opposing Cuomo and smear him with her negative brand.

Sensing an opportunity to do just that, the Alliance for Quality Education, a public school advocacy group that frequently battles the governor, issued a statement opposing Cuomo’s recent education proposals, including lifting the charter cap, immediately after DeVos was confirmed. It stated, “Betsy DeVos is a disastrous choice that spurred massive public resistance to her nomination. In New York State it is time for resistance to focus on Governor Cuomo … Just as New Yorkers have been leaders in the fight to resist Trump and dump DeVos, we will now fight back against Cuomo and his attacks on public education.”

Press For Positive Change

Resistance is all well and good. But my colleague Richard Eskow is correct when he writes, “In today’s political climate, ‘opposing’ – or worse, merely ‘withstanding’ – isn’t enough. It will take a countervailing force for change to stop Trump and the Republicans.”

What’s the countervailing force public school advocates need? Progressive Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives recently answered that.

As Politico reports, on the same day of the final vote on DeVos in the Senate,  Democrats in the House issued a new Progressive Education Agenda. The agenda was drafted by California Democratic Representative Mark Takano and endorsed by the House Public Education Caucus.

The Agenda begins as it should, proclaiming education as a “fundamental civil right in the United States of America” and calling for education approaches that address equity in the public school system and considering “both the instruction our children receive and the conditions they need – in and out of the classroom – to succeed.”

In a complete departure from the corporate reform ideas Democrats have embraced, the Agenda completely abandons the language of competition and performance measurement and instead calls for “defending and investing in our public schools as universally accessible and inherently democratic institutions.”

Among the 6 “policy goals” in the agenda are proposals to expand access to early childhood education, ensure equitable access and resources at all grade levels, and support educators and their training programs.

Certainly, those are positive reforms all progressives can get behind.

Not A Time For Compromise

The torrent of protests that have greeted the advent of the Trump regime is evidence of a popular unwillingness to compromise with the nation’s new leadership.

Is there any reason to believe this unwillingness to compromise doesn’t extend to education?

The Progressive Education Agenda Takano and his colleagues are pushing “reveals the wide gap between progressive Democrats and Betsy DeVos in terms of both education policy priorities and expertise,” states a press release from Takano’s office. Good. The gap needs to be wide.

* Correction: Sen. Booker was on the board of Alliance for School Choice years before he became mayor of Newark. His name first appears on the board of American Education Reform Council, which eventually became ASC, in their 2002 990 form. He became mayor in 2006 and was still on the board of ASC in their 2008 990 tax calendar year.

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