I spend a lot of my time navigating the tumultuous internal conflicts and ideological inconsistencies within my party, the Democratic Party, when it comes to public education. In fact, that’s more or less my job description. So I have to admit that it is somewhat pleasurable to watch the emergence of similar tensions on the other side of the aisle amongst my Republican allies, especially when it comes to education reform and school choice. Maybe pleasurable is not the right word. Perhaps it’s perplexing. Even a little depressing.
Nearly a year ago, we watched with great interest as a fascinating left-right alliance formed in Washington between the teachers unions (who didn’t like the concept of federal accountability in schools) and the Tea Party (which didn’t like the idea of any kind of federal involvement in schools.). Together, this alliance wound up shaping proposed changes to existing federal law that would let states and districts off the hook for improving the academic performance of millions of disadvantaged children. Historically reasonable folks like poor John Boehner started looking like the helpless, powerless substitute teachers we used to torment back in middle school.
I don’t intend this to kick a speaker while he is down, but to point out the obvious as Republicans consider their path on education issues: they have to figure out whether they are Boehner Republicans (willing to cut a deal involving a federal role in school choice and accountability issues) or Tea Party Republicans (who would seem happiest if there were no schools, let alone taxpayer-supported public schools). They need to figure out who among them is willing to let the federal government act as a catalyst for some key needed policy changes, and who among them oppose any federal education policy whatsoever just as a misguided point of principle.
I don’t mention this glibly. The tremendous pull that the Tea Party has had on domestic policy issues, including education, has folks on our side of the aisle looking back longingly at the groundbreaking work that President George W. Bush and Boehner were able to accomplish with liberal icons like Senator Teddy Kennedy and Rep. George Miller. You know, back in the good old days where at least both parties agreed that government could be an enabler of good, rather than just an overpriced agent of evil.
So, understanding that tips from a Democrat will be taken with a grain of salt at the RNC, I nonetheless offer these nuggets for consideration:
1. Throw the Tea-Baggers under the bus: If you don’t do it for issues of substance, do it for the politics alone.
In 2000, George W. Bush did very well with Hispanics and other emerging voting blocs when he included education as part of his “compassionate conservative” platform. Remember that issues that Republicans claim to support – including school choice – are/can be enabled by the same government that the Tea Party wants to bring to its knees. Speaker Dennis Hastert, like Bush, made a decision at the start of the NCLB process that he was not even going to try to get the votes of arch-conservatives (who would now be called tea-baggers) because he knew that any role for the feds at all with these folks would be considered too much.
The Tea Party is holding you guys back, man! Ditch them like Obama ditched Wall Street. (OK, someday folks in my world will be able to laugh about jokes like that … )
Once the extremists are in your rear-view mirror, you will at least be able to have an intelligent conversation about the proper federal role in education. Right now “no” isn’t a great starting point for said conversation. The problem with the Tea Party is that its members cannot accept any role whatsoever. Of course there is a role for the federal government here. The sooner you accept that, the sooner we can get into the real meat of the discussion.
2. Take the school choice talk to the next level: I watched Gov. Romney’s maiden education speech and, as a school choice guy, found a lot to like there. But many of us have learned – or at least we think we have learned – that school choice works best when we are unleashing demand AND supply at the same time. It is cliché but true: giving parents choices and having tax dollars follow students mean very little in the end if the supply of great choices out there aren’t DRAMATICALLY expanded from what we have today.
So, yes, keep pushing “parent choice” but understand that the existing pool of schools – both public and private – aren’t anywhere where we need them to be for “choice” to be effective as a national strategy. Many of us at one time believed that choice and competition – “demand” – could be powerful forces and that the supply of great schools would just grow on its own under the weight of that power. But as we’ve seen in the last 20 years, the supply of great schools has grown fastest when government has helped get the wheels turning. The growth of high-quality public charter schools is having a tremendous impact on choice, thanks to federal start-up grants that date back to President Clinton and the Republican Congress. (Yes, those are the same charter school grants that the GOP-led House wants to cut right now. So side note: It really doesn’t look good when the Republican presidential nominee is out there talking about more charter schools and the GOP Congress is gutting President Obama’s proposed funding for them.) Unleashing demand is awesome, but only when we are simultaneously focused on massively growing the supply of great choices. Sounds to me like a GREAT role for the federal government …
3. Using government money in education isn’t terrible: Come on, guys. Even the Catholic school diehards can tell you it costs money to run a quality educational program. And many of them desperately want tuition vouchers, which of course, come from the big, bad government. President Obama showed rather convincingly that coupling federal dollars with reform is a pretty damned good strategy for reform. (Race To The Top worked unprecedented wonders on both the supply and demand sides, using the leverage of just a tiny portion of education dollars in the stimulus package that Republicans slammed.)
So if you really want to help expand school choice, double-down on competitive grant programs at the federal level which help high-performing public charter schools replicate. Throw your support behind Rep. Jared Polis’ (D-Colo.) All-Star bill, which would provide federal funding to grow the supply of great school choices. In general, be willing to attach strings to federal dollars so long as they increase the supply of good schools and decrease the supply of crappy schools. Then, when we give more choices to parents it really means something. You can do it!
Don’t worry, I am not talking about throwing money down a drain. Dollars should follow students but they should also eventually flow to publicly-accountable schools. You could do wonders for the education reform movement if you helped us shift the conversation from charters vs. district and public vs. private to one that pits good schools vs. bad schools. Funding publicly-accountable schools means we can focus government resources on the stuff that is working, and not on the clunker schools and poorly-run programs that are not. As much as you may want to let the marketplace determine school quality… trust me, there is an important role for government here in cutting the wheat from the chaff. There is plenty of room in the school choice movement for accountability. Parents deserve that help.
4. The bully pulpit/Nixon Goes To China moment: Yes, the GOP could make use of the bully pulpit on education, but it works a whole lot better when the President is a Democrat and an education reformer. People interpreted President Obama’s challenge to teacher unions as a “man bites dog” or “Nixon goes to China” kind of moment; it is a little bit more complicated for Republicans since you guys have made a sport of trying to crush teachers unions.
But you, too, could have fun baffling and confounding the press corps with your own counter-intuitive story by (1) welcoming innovative, effective, for-profit actors into the education reform space while, (2) publicly beating the you-know-what out of the bad actors, fraudsters, etc. in the for-profit education sector. We need as many of the former as we can get, but we’re getting bogged down by the latter. You, Mr. and Mrs. Republican Education Reformer, can be the ones to set our nation straight on the for-profit versus non-profit tension.
We have seen what good can come when smart, pragmatic policy gets enacted, and when Democrats and Republicans come together to put the true needs of our nation’s public education system at the top of our priority lists. It is possible, even in the bizarre hyper-partisan atmosphere that pervades Washington. (But did I mention you guys are probably going to have to throw the Tea Party under the bus?)
Joe Williams is executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.