Values and Coalition Politics

Values are a powerful thing. Personal values drive individual priorities, and being explicit publicly about those values can help to form political consensus. This emphasis on values animated a discussion at Georgetown University last week. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne moderated a panel that included President Barack Obama, Our Kids author Robert Putnam, and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks. The discussion was sponsored by a group of Catholic and Evangelical leaders focused on lifting the poor, and as a result, the panelists leaned heavily on biblical principles of morality to amplify their personal and political motivations.

Obama and Brooks were the starring poles on the spectrum of the dialectic that emerged. The two men had striking and sincere common ground on the necessity of lifting the poor and also agreed that both public and private responses are needed to address the massive wealth inequality that has characterized this country in the past four decades. The devil, of course, is in the details. Obama emphasized the importance of public investments to support the common good, while Brooks asserted that the free market has been the instrumental factor in lifting billions of folks globally out of poverty. The ninety-minute panel ended with our country no closer to solving wealth inequality, but I was encouraged that a conversation grounded in values made it easier to approach policy solutions. A former Massachusetts state legislator reminded me just yesterday that we often confuse the values that underscore our motivations with the politics and policies that emerge from acting on them.

The other striking thing about the conversation was just how frequently President Obama came back to the issue of education when talking about inequality. For years I have been concerned that education reform advocates are too skittish when talking about the interconnectedness between poverty and education as political issues. Courageous advocates are speaking with more assurance these days, but there are a few real barriers to having the conversation. First, since the 1990s, education reform has been a movement grounded in accountability. While the public agreed that schools and educators needed to be held accountable for performance, the interest groups representing both school systems and educators became concerned that they might be accused of delivering weak outcomes amidst contextual factors outside of their control, like the stress effects of poverty. This debate spiraled into a pitched battle over whether or not any accountability was viable until poverty was fixed. Labor unions accused education reformers of ignoring poverty, and reformers accused labor unions of using poverty as an excuse not to teach vulnerable kids. I’ve said before that I agree more with the reformers in this debate, but I think both sides are missing the point, as it’s clearly a “both and” issue.

The second, and more politically complicated, reason for the reform community’s skittishness is the composition of the coalition that backs reform. There is a strong social justice tradition within the reform community, but there are strong emphases on deregulation, parent choice, talent, and innovation as well. While the social justice wing of the reform movement sees no problem linking arms with those supporting poverty amelioration, the interests of the other groups intersect much less with an anti-poverty agenda. Mature political coalitions allow for shifting interests and emphases, but reform is only starting to get there. It doesn’t help that some funders of education reform discourage participation in a broader agenda, to the detriment of the movement and its ability to wield political might, particularly in municipal elections. A large group of students helped unseat a Los Angeles school board incumbent yesterday, partly due to the fact that the reform movement there embraced issues outside of education reform orthodoxy that are important to youth and their families.

Finally, the education reform movement lacks significant racial and socioeconomic diversity in its upper ranks. This underrepresentation is a significant problem on its own, but that lack of diversity also means that people from vulnerable communities do not have enough voice in setting the reform agenda. The lived experiences of folks who come from vulnerable communities indicate that education is one of a set of broader initiatives necessary to tackle concentrated and intergenerational inequality. While education might be the most important ingredient in an anti-poverty policy cocktail, more leaders from underrepresented communities will mean greater emphasis on those other issues, like criminal justice, housing, and jobs.

There is far more to be gained than lost when education reformers embrace the issues above. Perhaps the most significant impact of that choice will be more reformers living and acting in accordance with their real values. From a more pragmatic standpoint, these issues represent a opportunity to form a more robust political coalition. Low-income Americans are not the only ones feeling the pinch of weak public investment, as a failure to focus on the common good reaches far beyond our most vulnerable communities into the middle-class suburbs. Reformers will lose some funders when making this shift. That’s too bad, and I hope it's fewer than I anticipate. But they’ll make new friends along the way, including huge groups of politically motivated young people who come from communities where inequality is apparent in everyday life and not just an abstract concept.