Tuesday Reading List: A Diatribe on School Improvement & Progressive Politics

There are three interrelated articles on the reading list today, all dealing with the relationship between progressive politics and education policy.

Erin Roth, Abel McDaniels, Catherine Brown, and Neil Campbell at the lefty think tank Center for American Progress discuss high-performing charter schools (Update: article now linked):

Equal access to economic mobility and a clear pathway for all students to the middle class are essential progressive values. In the context of education, these values manifest as a steadfast belief in a public, equitable, and innovative education system capable of providing students with the skills and knowledge needed for economic mobility and full civic participation. Public education in the United States has yet to materialize as a consistent economic equalizer. However, evidence suggests that the equalizing force of education is succeeding in large parts of the charter sector today. To be clear, the charter sector does have a unique set of problems—from significant variation in student performance to a lack of accountability and transparency in for-profit charter schools that, in many cases, should result in those schools being shut down. However, high quality and accountable charters are successfully improving student achievement and closing the opportunity gap for low-income students of color through innovation within the public education system. 

The rest of the article will be available later today, and I will share a link when it becomes public. The authors contextualize high-quality charter schooling within the scope of progressive values, which is the ethos that drew me to the project of school improvement in the first place.

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In that spirit, RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation takes aim at conservative education reformers who have been critical of Teach for America's explicit embrace of a progressive social justice agenda:

By advancing its mission more-explicitly (and politically), Teach For America is conceding a reality that many conservative and centrist Democrat reformers fail to admit: That American public education — especially traditional districts in big cities and increasingly-urbanized suburbs — is at the nexus of the issues facing the nation today ... Reformers can’t help children succeed in life without addressing the direct ways it fuels the nation’s social ills (including the failures to provide children with high quality education they need to sustain families and be knowledgeable leaders in society), its role funneling children into juvenile and criminal justice systems, and its keystone position in perpetuating the legacies of state-sanctioned bigotry against Black, Latino, Native, and immigrant children.

Biddle's perspective is self-evident to me, and it's troubling that conservatives and centrists can't find their way out of their self-constructed paper bag on this topic. You simply cannot keep progressive Democrats engaged in the project of improving schools without putting social justice at the center of that agenda.

The critics of this idea wrap their nay-saying in two types of arguments. The first, which I find more honest, comes from the right. They reject a social justice agenda altogether, in favor of a conservative bootstrapping narrative that relies on a free market approach to schooling. I disagree with them, but they never pretended to be interested in school reform for the sake of racial justice anyway. That said, they could maintain a focus on right-wing economic ideas without an outright embrace of racist policy and politics.

The second critique, which I find intellectually troubling, is from centrists who argue that we're going to scare away the people who make the first argument when we talk in explicit terms about race, class, and justice. It's the, "Look, I'm with you, but I can't promise that those other guys will stick around" argument. It's political cowardice masquerading as tactical sophistication.

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Finally, Derrell Bradford is in The 74 discussing a Supreme Court case - Janus v. AFSCME - that could weaken the political power of public sector labor unions. He thinks an anti-union decision there could be an opportunity for progressive education policymakers:

Having put all their eggs in the basket of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, with an eye toward her appointment of a sympathetic Supreme Court nominee to succeed Scalia, Janus represents the worst of all possible presents, and futures, for both the National Education Association and the AFT. That said, this nightmare scenario presents a golden opportunity for a group that would seemingly have the most to lose with a gutting of the teachers unions’ financial apparatus. That group is, ironically, none other than card-carrying elected members of the Democratic Party at the local, state, and national levels. Part hostage, part partner, the party now has a chance to pivot and refine its vision in a world where teachers union dollars are now, potentially, just pennies.

Public sector unions flex their political capabilities in two major ways: money and bodies. While the Janus decision would change the cash part of that equation, it would leave intact unions' ability to engage in political organizing and mobilizing. I suspect that people who are enthused about the potential decision in Janus are overestimating the impact of money, while understating the influence of the bodies. (Reformers: please see Massachusetts. Do you need more examples, or are we good?)

Where does this leave us? Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the politics of 2017 bear almost no resemblance to the politics of the early 1990s, when "education reform" was ascendant. In that era, state-level centrist deal-making created a cascade of new charter laws. Those deals relied on both Democrats who were dissatisfied with the education system, and Republicans who were willing to pursue bipartisanship over brinksmanship. There are plenty of Democrats who still want to improve schools, but I fear that Republicans have driven their party too far over the cliff to see that reality.

The other thing to keep in mind is that education reform to date has been most successful when it relied on technical strategies that were tangential to electoral politics. While it might be appealing to retreat to that period of time, the proverbial ship has sailed. Reformers have engaged in hardcore politics, and while there have been some wins, the losses have been more plentiful and of a higher profile.

And guess what? There will always be wins and losses. The critical thing to remember, though, is that the only way to build a substantial electoral majority for improving the education system is to empower the people who are currently living with the deleterious effects of suboptimal public schooling. I'm open to the idea that such a majority includes both families in communities of color, and dissatisfied, White suburban moms. As long as the Republican party relies on racist political strategy that embraces White supremacy as a policy agenda, however, that coalition will never materialize.

Some values are non-negotiable. For me, those include racial justice, equity, and real opportunities for all children. I am baffled that even some putative Democrats can't find their way to agreement with those principles. Nobody has a monopoly on predicting the future, but I want to make my bet clear: the future of school improvement depends on building a large coalition among the families in America's cities who are most affected by underperforming schools.

Have a great day!