The problem with education reform’s deep blue hue

Matthew Ladner

In a compelling 60-second video, Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, outlines the results of a study he co-authored with Jay P. Greene, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

The study tracked the personal political contributions of the staffs of education reform organizations. Despite years of right-wing conspiracy accusations, it turns out the party education reformers overwhelming support has been the Democrats. Greene and Hess summarized their case in the Wall Street Journal:

Political homogeneity helps explain many of the setbacks the reform movement has suffered in recent years, including the collapse of Common Core, the abandonment of new teacher evaluation methods, and a national stall in the expansion of charter schools. It is losing its ability to forge new coalitions and find new converts. Those who care about the effectiveness of K-12 education should think about ways to inject some red—or at least purple—into a movement that has become monochromatically blue.

So: What should we make of these findings?

Hess used his Twitter account to provide a fair summary, from what I could tell, of the reaction to the findings of the study:

Two major public takes thus far –

  1. Greene and Hess are crazy. I know lots of Republicans active in school reform.
  2. Republicans are now merchants of hate. OF COURSE they’ve bailed on school reform.

It may be most productive here to focus on the phrase “school reform,” as it has had a very rough decade overall, and Democrats and Republicans alike should be learning. It seems clear to me that the ability of the capital (whether of the state or federal variety) to positively influence the quality of education delivered in the field (the vast system of public schools) is real, but so too is the ability to do harm.

If the capital is on its “A game,” it can get a few incentives pointed in the right direction, provide new opportunities for educators and families, provide some transparency, and stay out of the way. Attempts to micromanage the operation of the field, however, often fall somewhere on the pointless to counterproductive spectrum. If Republicans are bailing on that version of “school reform,” bully for them, and plenty of Democrats are joining them.

In my “Two Minutes Hate” post, I shared a deep concern with the revival of nativist rhetoric in our politics. You don’t have to be left of center to find the use of foreigner-bashing rhetoric dangerous, destructive and distasteful; I find it dangerous, destructive and distasteful. A combination of stepped-up enforcement on illegal immigration coupled with a substantial liberalization of legal immigration represents, to me, a plausible path forward on what has become a festering wound in our politics.

Our democracy is designed to create settlements of issues, and a great many Americans feel differently on the issue of immigration than I do. If our alleged Olympians in the U.S. Senate could spare a bit of time away from greeting themselves admiringly as “Mr./Madame President” when they look in the mirror in the morning, addressing the issue that’s tearing the country apart would be a fantastic idea. I do not, however, start with the presumption that those who have a different point of view on this issue are heathens. Rather, I view (most of) them as potential converts.

But I digress; back to K-12 reform.

There are very good people in both political parties passionate about expanding opportunities for families. Due in part to the current configuration of interest supporting the parties, the Republicans support such efforts at a higher rate per member than Democrats. So, dismissing Republican lawmakers as “Merchants of Hate” sadly but elegantly sums up the gist of the Hess and Greene report as broadly accurate. K-12 reformers depend heavily upon the support of Republicans in just about all states.

A genuinely bipartisan reform movement cannot afford to dismiss either of the major political parties and is at risk of obsolescence from the sort of groupthink that comes with a lack of political and intellectual diversity. Elected officials do not owe us their support any more than they owe it to our opponents.

We need to go out and earn the changes we support. Martin Luther King Jr. had less cause to worry about Lyndon Johnson’s long history as a racist once he signed the Civil Rights Act.

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