Joe Williams: On ed reform, GOP should throw Tea Party under the (school) bus

Special to redefinED

by Joe Williams


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 ed 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.redefinED-at-RNC-logo-snipped-300x148

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.

You may also like


Rosemarie August 15, 2012 - 9:20 pm

As a lifelong Democrat, I am not sure where to start on this terribly formulated and rambling explanation on why the Dems differ from the Republicans including the Tea Party Republicans. Because on education policy, there is no difference. Both parties are plundering public education dollars to be spent in FOR PROFIT charters which have been shown time and again to not out perform their public school counterparts, do not serve ESE, LD and second language learners equally, toss out kids that don’t meet their test score mandates, and hire underqualified people to supposedly teach the most needy. The Dems have caught on to the bash the teacher meme. As an American mom with my own two kids in public school who chose the hard work of teaching, I can assure you, we aren’t the evil, lazy women and men you paint us to be. We are not afraid of being responsible and accountable for what we do in the classroom, but what we can’t be accountable for is lack of nutrition, medical care, home support, motivation, ability, and attendance that we have NO control over. Why aren’t doctors paid for outcomes I wonder? Can I get every child to learn and make progress? Absolutely. Can I do it based on stupid high stakes testing that robs our curriculum of meaningful in depth learning, wastes time spent on prepping for said stupid tests, and mandates canned curriculum that anyone off the street can follow….no. Oh but wait, that’s what you reformers want..alternate paths to education like Teach for A Whilers who get a WHOLE FIVE WEEKS of training that supposedly prepares them for what took me four years and Masters to understand and perfect. But hey, they aren’t staying long and you can pay them crap with no benes because it’s just a resume bulider for their cushy jobs later in charter administrations or other financial institutions who are investing in the privatization of public education. And the money spent on the testing and the security for the testing etc…what we couldn’t do with that money. And since when do Democrats support vouchers to religious schools? A complete blurring of the separation between church and state and really it’s called education welfare for the rich who will now get a subsidy for a tony private education they can already afford, a tony private school that like Sidwell that DOES NOT give high stakes tests nor thinks evaluating teachers based on test scores is a valid measure of a teacher’s ability.The data is clear on that…it doesn’t. Funny how THAT works. You data people only like data that supports your insidious attempt to privatize and profit off of public school money….public schools that have for years produced a thriving American economy, innovation, and Pulitzer Prize winners. But that was all BEFORE the crap policy of NCLB and RTTT. We have had ten years of reform and they are a failure. But let’s be honest among ourselves as adults, it’s never really been about choice or helping kids learn….those are just the trojan horses to get your greedy hands on our public monies while doing your level best to trash professional educators, MOMS like me, and destroy another middle class profession. If there are typos, it’s because I am so angry with my party I could spit tacks. Democrats who want to destroy public schools, a cornerstone of our thriving democracy, are not in any sense of the word, Democrats….you are DINOS…do us a favor and slap a DINO sticker on your head because you deserve a spot under the bus right along with the Republicans and the Tea Party. Oh and here is another piece of info, unlike you people who can only think of ways to bilk the public to pad your bank accounts and invest in five hojmes and countless other cars, we teachers aren’t motivated by money., The intrinsic value of teaching a child to read, write, tie a shoe, cook, etc. is what motivates us…if we were motivated by money we wouldn’t have chosen the teaching profession in the first place. But I bet that type of thinking is absolutely foreign to those who are salivating at the public school dollars they will glean by pushing for profit charters.

Rosemarie August 15, 2012 - 10:13 pm

And by the way, let me know when TEACHERS or REAL educators are asked about educating children, because last I checked, there isn’t one reformer/deformer profiteer who was a bonafide degreed teacher. I am a little sick of listening to business people tell me how to teach, what to teach, and when to teach it. The Common Core is Common Crap written by a heartless man who hasn’t a clue about children or what is important, but you flash some bank, and voila you too can write policy and curriculum for a nation.Ask the employees at Microsoft how Gates’ management and evaluation policies are working out for them. Disgusting.

Rosemarie August 16, 2012 - 7:51 am

ANd let me add it all smacks of mysogeny…we white powerful men will tell you little women teachers how to teach…you can’t be trusted or handle children without US smart rich men telling you what we want you to do. Oh and I see Jonathan Kirtley, the big privatization fundraiser here in Floriduh on your list of hosts. How nice. A huge gang of bullies taking our public schools away from us. Sleep well.

MRM August 16, 2012 - 10:21 am

“…the helpless, powerless substitute teachers we used to torment back in middle school.”

back when bullying was just what “we” did for “fun”?

Rosemarie August 16, 2012 - 6:10 pm

Now they just do it in Armani suits, pockets filled with cash, pretending that it’s “for the children”.

juandos August 18, 2012 - 7:35 am

Hmmm, so Joe Williams wants to spend other people’s money on what he thinks is a good idea, eh?

My question is, “is Joe Williams so abysmally educated that doesn’t understand that there is NO place in the Constitution for federal interference in local and state run education?”…

Ever read Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution or are you a “victim” of a public school education?

Apparently Joe Williams’ only job is to empower parasites or tax leeches…

Ron Matus
Ron Matus August 18, 2012 - 3:50 pm

Hi everybody. I just removed several comments. We welcome comment and debate, and we understand passions can run high about school choice and education reform issues. But we will not tolerate personal attacks and profanity.

ciro August 25, 2012 - 4:42 pm

It is really disheartening to see Mr. Williams make ad hominem attacks (“tea baggers”) on people who have a different political philosophy.

Mr. Williams should seek to inquire why reasonable people have different views than him. If he did, he would see that people who favor smaller government and less public debt and taxes are not motivated by ill will. Instead, he would see that they merely want to lower their tax burdens so that they can provide for their families and love ones.

People who have lower to middle incomes typically have high local, state, and federal tax burdens (no capital gains writeofffs and no housing interest deductables) and to make ends meet, they have to sacrifice just a bit more that the average high income earner. Lower to middle income earners have no problem helping their fellow man (research shows that on percentage terms lower to middle earners Americans are more charitable that higher income earners). But based on 30-40 years of history, it is reasonable for them to conclude that the federal government has only have a negative impact on education (flat NAEP scores, higher tuition costs at the post-secondary level, cumbersome regulatory regime that makes their children’s schools more inefficient – think IEPs).

Many who favor small government yearn to have a pro-choice market supported by charters, vouchers, tax credits. They just don’t think that the federal government level, given prior performance, will get them there. Rather than attacking “tea partiers” at the federal level, Mr. Williams DFER should work with them at the state and local level.

Anonymous August 28, 2012 - 1:38 pm

Very well-said, ciro.

Comments are closed.