The edges of the education reform coalition have frayed throughout the Obama administration, and the election of Donald Trump has accelerated the disintegration of reform's center. If this particular era of education reform sunsets, some mourning is understandable. Good, technocratic compromises came out of the last generation of reform: legitimate accountability for struggling schools, the proliferation of high quality charter schooling options, and the invention of the Common Core, for example.
Despite those successes, some reform Democrats seem hyper-concerned about preserving the bipartisan coalition, and not concerned enough about building a legitimate future, and political base, for transforming children's opportunities and futures. The imminent Trump era further complicates that tension, as compromise with a bigoted administration will not only further alienate communities that reformers ostensibly hope to serve, but also force Democrats to compromise on some core values. In the interest of both preserving these values, and maintaining leverage over the Trump administration, Democratic reformers should spend little time trying to improve Trump’s bad ideas, and lots of time shoring up the substantive and political strength of their own.
Democratic reforms should embrace ideas like equity, accountability, and justice. Trump and his appointees stand for none of those things. Without an emphasis on either equity or accountability, Trump’s core projects – school choice, for example – come unmoored from any progressive values, and thus do not deserve, or require, compromise from the left.
If values are unpersuasive, consider leverage. Trump’s election inverts some core assumptions about the reform coalition. While a coterie of conservatives spent the summer embracing victimhood, feeling left behind by the social justice bent of the reform project, Trump’s ascension to the White House forces a reassessment of power dynamics. Now that the man in the White House is not only a card carrying member of the right, but also hostile to basic equality, the education reform left needs to remember what leverage looks like when they don’t have positional authority. (See for example: the relative success of Mitch McConnell versus Eric Cantor in the last decade.)
If the Trump administration wants to expand unaccountable choice, while jettisoning standards, they can do so without the talent and energy of Democratic reformers. Instead, reformers on the left should do these three things for the next four years:
1) Listen to communities. If there’s one thing that most left-of-center reformers agree upon, it’s that some the most promising, evidence-based reform ideas remain disconnected from the lived experiences of vulnerable communities. (See: Massachusetts voters’ repudiation of a modest expansion of successful charter schools.) Fruitful work can be found where reformers' ideas intersect with community needs. Some reasonable ideas face structural barriers to popularity; robust teacher evaluation reform, for example, has no natural political constituency, while enjoying a motivated, and empowered, opposition. Other ideas, like high performing public charter school options, seem popular, but struggle to achieve durable public support through a mix of substantive and political hurdles. If reform activists spend more time listening, building local alliances, cultivating grassroots relationships, and understanding community politics, the playing field will look very different in 2020.
2) Prevent bad ideas from metastasizing. Democratic reformers have spent a generation either in power (the Obama era), or in collaboration with Republicans who shared some core values (remember: Ted Kennedy stood next to George Bush when the latter signed "No Child Left Behind"). As a result, reformers on the left have let their opposition muscles atrophy, and some elements of the current climate demand outright resistance.
For example, a $20 billion federal voucher scheme is a bad idea for cultivating quality school choices, even if you think vouchers are a good idea, which I don’t. Improving the execution of bad ideas is a recipe for discrediting oneself. Rory Stewart, an immensely quotable British diplomat, had this to say about improving bad policy ideas:
“What they would like is little advice on some small bit. I mean, the analogy that one of my colleagues used recently is this: it's as though they come to you and they say, "We're planning to drive our car off a cliff. Do we wear a seatbelt or not?" And we say, "Don't drive your car off the cliff." And they say, "No, no, no. That decision's already made. The question is should we wear our seatbelts?" And you say, "Why by all means wear a seatbelt." And they say, "Okay, we consulted with policy expert, Rory Stewart," et cetera.”
In the Trump era, Democrats will be remembered not for the bad ideas they improved, but for the values they protected through opposition.
3) Generate and support new ideas. The reforms for which Democratic reformers have fought for a generation are powerful, but they are not the only ideas that promise to improve the lives of vulnerable children and communities. Fighting for a set of policy solutions is interest group behavior; fighting for the permanent interests of children and communities is movement behavior. There are new ideas yet to be fully explored (i.e. microschools and student-centered design), not to mention existing ideas whose potential has yet to be exhausted (i.e. school integration, full-service community schools, and teacher empowerment). Now is a good time to expand horizons, and to figure out which partnerships and alliances might hasten the adoption and measurable successes of new ideas
Individual Democrats will decide whether any of these paths is worth pursuing. Some folks prefer ideation to opposition, while others excel at power building. All of these alternatives, however, should be more appealing than supporting a bigoted president’s illiberal, autocratic agenda. Pursuing bipartisan means, over progressive ends, is part of the reason that the best ideas of the reform coalition are now on life support. In emphasizing the need to assemble, and keep at the table, an array of centrist technocrats, the reform coalition failed to prioritize listening to not just the communities whose support was instrumental to maintaining the political legitimacy of reform work, but also to the workforce whose talent and input are necessary to implement good ideas. A failure to correct that behavior during the Trump administration could – and perhaps should – discredit a generation of putatively progressive reformers.