Just a few years ago Democrats were playing a lead role in pushing for broad-based reform of our nation’s public schools. Using rigorous and regular testing of student academic progress to generate the necessary data, money and resources were poured into a “moon shot” effort to make quality education available to all children by turning government and private philanthropy into partners in creating a new paradigm for a national public education system that seemed unable to shake off its bureaucratic mindset and incrementalism. Billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars and private wealth washed into our nation’s public schools, and the high hopes attached to all this money seemed a sure sign that monumental changes were at hand.
Watching the momentum for K-12 education reform now grinding to a screeching halt around the nation, one cannot help but be struck by the shocking efforts of so many leading Democrats to now reduce or de-emphasize academic assessments, roll back charter schools, and embrace the ossified civil service approach of the nation’s teacher unions.
Were reformers fooling themselves all along regarding the possibilities for dramatic progress?
Even putting aside the strong political headwinds now facing school reform advocates, the sad truth of the matter is that change always required a willingness to both stand up to the political power of teacher unions and aggressively deregulate public education in order to introduce real market incentives—and market risk—to a system that both has historically been run according to the priorities of teacher unions and is populated by many teachers and administrators who have no interest at all in abandoning their entrenched civil service protections.
Improvements in the quality and academic outcomes of our nation’s public schools was also always an uphill fight because resistance to reforms was made all the easier by the extraordinary “local control” baked into our nation’s tens of thousands of autonomous public school districts, which have shown themselves to be largely impervious to any changes beyond the most cosmetic simply by virtue of their sheer numbers. The net result is that school reformers have spent decades banging their heads into a brick wall of fantastically fragmented bureaucratic obstinacy designed to protect well-paid but marginally competent teachers and administrators who find any effort to quantify outcomes, develop cost-benefit analyses, or (gasp!) insist upon accountability antithetical to their mutual goals of ironclad job security and guaranteed salary enhancement.
The real lesson of the past several decades of education reform is as simple as can be: You cannot force changes upon a system that has little real interest in what passionate—but too often ineffectual—reformers are trying to sell. It is always easier for the education insiders to insist that the problems with student learning are due to external societal and cultural factors, so miserable academic outcomes cannot be blamed on the schools themselves.
However, the challenge today facing reformers is the increasingly close relationship between teacher unions and the Democratic Party. Unless this is somehow severed right now, real reforms will continue to be measured with an eye dropper in the decades to come.
How close is the relationship between teacher unions and the Democratic Party? The numbers tell the story. During the 2018 elections, 95% of the over $30 million dollars they contributed to political parties and candidates went to Democrats. Of course, driven by high profile races in Texas, Florida, and Georgia, this amount was dwarfed by total 2018 election spending that topped $5.2 billion, but teacher unions also provided large and reliable voting blocs in key races and contributed countless in-kind resources to Democratic candidates. The net result of this political symbiosis is that the matter most important to teacher unions—growing their base of dues-paying members—is also rapidly become a driving issue of the Democratic Party.
The most obvious element of the alliance between Democrats and teacher unions is a renewed national push to halt the growth of charter schools, which offer tuition-free alternatives for families that cannot afford private schools. Whether or not charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated, provide better educational outcomes for students—and there is a great deal of hard and persuasive evidence that this is indeed the case—seems to be a tangential concern at the moment. The crux of the matter is that more charter schools translates into fewer teachers paying union dues. Union leaders, feeling besieged after the Janus decision by the Supreme Court struck down state mandates for “fair share” dues across the nation, now seem resolutely determined to reverse the national growth of charter schools. The rumblings are growing louder in many states, although supporters of charter schools have also mobilized to defend parent choice, but we have just seen the most dramatic move in what is likely to be a long and divisive battle in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school system—and until only recently a major booster of charter schools.
Having just settled a teacher strike with a new contract that has already been deemed financially unsustainable, the LAUSD Board of Education has now voted to declare a moratorium on the growth of charter schools. The 225 charter schools in Los Angeles now serve 23% of the district’s students—112,000 young people whose parents chose to remove them from the city’s troubled public schools. This has long been a sore point for national teacher unions, who see the rapid growth of charter schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere as an existential threat. Is it simply a coincidence that this shocking reversal happened in the most heavily Democratic state in the nation, one that provides 20% of the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives? Should we be surprised that the often tearful pleas of Los Angeles parents, who were thrilled with the quality of the educations that their children are now receiving, were completely ignored by school board members, many of whom owe their seats to Democratic support?
The political battle lines have hardened in recent years, but one area where politics should be set aside is the desire of every parent to find the school that best fits the needs of their child. Charter schools have offered many poor and middle-class parents an avenue to help their children escape blighted public schools that were robbing them of their right to a quality education. To insist that these children, and more to follow, must hope and pray that their school will be spared from today’s political gamesmanship is both cruel and destructive. The national movement toward school choice—of which charter schools are certainly the most important single component—should not be rolled back so that teacher unions can sign up some more dues-paying members.
The dreams of parents and students for the brighter futures that charter schools can provide must be respected, nurtured, and supported. To do otherwise would be the worst possible betrayal.