How the Dems Lost on Education

For Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, filing a lawsuit against the No Child Left Behind Act must have seemed like an obvious winner. More and more attorney generals around the country were using splashy litigation to boost their profiles. (It was August 2005, and Eliot Spitzer was a lock for the governor's mansion in neighboring New York.) By taking on the increasingly unpopular Bush administration and demanding more federal funding for education, headlines and support from fellow Democrats were sure to follow. "Give us the money," Blumenthal demanded at a press conference, or relieve the state from having to test elementary school students once a year in reading and math. And for a few months after the suit was filed, it seemed to work. The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers' union, issued a laudatory press release. "Connecticut is taking a brave stand today," said the NEA's president, Reg Weaver. So far, so good.

But things soon started to go south. In November, a federal judge threw out a similar NEA-backed suit in Michigan. Then came the real blow: On January 30, 2006, the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP announced plans to intervene in the suit, representing a group of minority schoolchildren against Blumenthal. Noting that Connecticut had "the worst gap in achievement between poor and non-poor children" in the nation, the NAACP called the suit "an excuse to not meet the needs of Connecticut's children of color." National civil-rights leaders soon joined the chorus. Legendary attorney William Taylor, chair of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a man who worked with Thurgood Marshall on the 1958 Little Rock Central High School brief to the Supreme Court, dismissed Blumenthal as an opponent of civil rights. One legal observer in Connecticut called the action a "special fiasco," while the Hartford Courant and The Washington Post published editorials denouncing the suit.

Blumenthal's miscalculation wasn't an isolated incident. Democrats have been stumbling on education policy for years, fracturing the progressive coalition, tainting the party brand, creating undeserved political opportunities for Republicans, and, worst of all, standing in the way of school reforms that primarily benefit low-income and minority children. Until Democrats reclaim education reform as a progressive cause, the embarrassments are sure to continue.

American public education does a much better job than many of its conservative critics claim. The idea that present-day schools represent a huge decline from previous decades is a myth; overall student achievement has improved and is improving still. At the same time, public schools are plagued by a number of major shortcomings, most rooted in the underlying structure and history of the system, which has always been unusually local in character, funding, and governance.

Local control means that poor students receive far fewer resources than their wealthy peers and that every district makes its own decisions about what students need to learn. Because schools are government-supported and free to attend, they generally have little competition or external accountability. Historically, this has led schools in environments lacking strong economic, social, and political institutions (the District of Columbia's public schools are an infamous example) to collapse into total dysfunction. Well-off students generally do okay in this system, because their schools have more resources and whatever they don't get from their teachers is made up for at home. Low-income and minority students, by contrast--the children whom Democrats should be ideologically and politically most interested in serving--tend to fare far worse. In many distressed communities, drop-out and illiteracy rates are sky-high.

There is nothing inherently conservative about observing these persistent problems or advocating the obvious solutions: more equitable school funding, common standards across schools, external accountability for results, and more school choice to spur competition and give low-income parents the same educational options enjoyed by the rich—most of whose children attend better public schools, not private schools. It was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, after all, who called for common standards, student testing, and accountability when the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was being written in 1965. Without them, he thought, new federal dollars would be wasted.

But Kennedy was ahead of his time in seeing the need for accountability, and the school reform agenda soon collided with larger political realities. States and districts weren't particularly interested in relinquishing local control. Teachers' unions, meanwhile, were rising to power. Unionization provides great benefits to teachers in the form of higher status, better pay, and well-deserved job protections. But as unions' ability to garner pay increases has slowed since the 1970s, their agenda became more focused on two key goals: job security and classroom autonomy. Unions also focused on school security, seeking to maintain the status quo. They weren't interested in letting other public schools compete for the same children or letting outside agencies judge school results. Classroom autonomy, meanwhile, was seen as a key element of elevating the teaching profession into the realm of respected, self-directed professionals. This, too, argued against uniform standards.

The unions' goals meshed with district and state desires to preserve local control, creating a unified establishment agenda. And post-1972 Democratic Party reforms helped make that establishment a major player within the party. While Democrats and teachers' unions were good for public education on the whole, fighting privatization and tax cuts, they had a blind spot when it came to the quality of education. The standard Democratic platform after the 1960s always came down to more education--more hours, more funding, more teachers--but never better education through accountability, choice, and reform.

Mediocrity and dysfunction in public education persisted, a fact highlighted in A Nation at Risk, the influential 1983 report issued by U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell's National Commission on Excellence in Education. It charged that, in the absence of standards and accountability, many schools gave students uneven instruction and weak curricula that didn't prepare them for college and careers. President Reagan jumped on the findings, participating in 18 education events in the following three months and burnishing his image as a reformer in the run-up to the 1984 election. Before the report, Reagan's education agenda had consisted of trying to abolish the Department of Education and slash education funding while promoting vouchers and school prayer. But he and his advisers did a quick about-face after seeing the public's reaction to the report and took advantage of voters' justifiable dissatisfaction with the educational status quo. It was a lesson Republicans would remember.

By the late 1980s, a bipartisan consensus had formed around standards-based reform. Progressive labor leaders like American Federation of Teachers' president, Albert Shanker, increasingly recognized the need for accountability. A 1989 meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought 49 governors to the table, led by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and President George H. W. Bush, to discuss setting common standards across states and schools. But the education establishment fought back against encroachment on its authority and did so again in 1994 when President Clinton helped push through a major overhaul of ESEA. It was this law--not the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)--that first required states to create standards, test students, and hold schools accountable for student learning. Clinton also supported the emerging charter school movement, which helped create new, autonomous public schools of choice that often explicitly focused on helping disadvantaged children. For a little while, it seemed like the historic back-and-forth was breaking decisively in one direction.

But Clinton's Department of Education failed to rigorously enforce the provisions of the 1994 law--nearly a decade later, some states still hadn't gotten around to establishing standards and tests to match. The administration became distracted by other priorities and problems. And Vice President Al Gore failed to seize the education-reform mantle in the 2000 election, rarely pushing the issue in speeches or at events. That left an opening for George W. Bush, who had championed school accountability when he was governor of Texas, allowing him to plausibly claim that he was interested in reforming public institutions, not just in tearing them down. It worked: Bush cut Gore's advantage on the issue down to the low single digits. In a July 2001 New Yorker article on the ongoing NCLB negotiations, journalist Nicholas Lehmann goes so far as to say, "Education was the issue that made Bush President."

Recent years have seen more of the same. When NCLB was passed with large bipartisan majorities in Congress in 2001, civil-rights groups praised the law, which for the first time required states to annually test students in math and reading; break the numbers down by race, class, language, and disability status; and intervene in failing schools. Race- and class-based achievement gaps that had previously been hidden beneath average scores finally came to light. But the NEA soon declared all-out war on the law, and the Bush administration failed to propose the maximum allowed funding. NCLB's association with the president made it anathema to the growing ranks of anti-Bush partisans, one more item on a long list of failures and betrayals. This magazine called it "Bush's Education Fraud." Flaws in the school-rating system became apparent, but Congress was unable to move legislation to fix them.

By the time the epic 2008 Democratic primary was underway, education reform was at best a muddle to be avoided, at worst an opportunity for pandering to the base. Hillary Clinton, one of the 91 senators who voted for NCLB in 2001, ratcheted up the anti-NCLB rhetoric as the campaign wore on, eventually calling it a "failed policy that needs fundamental overhaul." Barack Obama's NCLB critiques, while significant, were more muted and focused on expanding measures of school success beyond standardized tests.

While the candidates danced around the issue on the campaign trail, some Democrats in Congress formed a strange-bedfellow alliance with extreme conservatives to shut NCLB down. In June 2008, Tim Walz, a freshman Democratic congressman and former schoolteacher, co-sponsored a bill backed by the NEA and the National School Boards Association designed to suspend the core accountability provisions of the law. The NEA sent a grateful letter to the Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Sam Graves (the Missouri conservative who recently ran an infamous, blatantly homophobic campaign advertisement attacking a Democratic candidate for her "San Francisco values"). Meanwhile, a group of major Hispanic organizations including the National Council of La Raza denounced the bill, warning it would "bring the progress schools have made under NCLB in educating Latinos to a screeching halt." It was the Blumenthal fiasco all over again, this time alienating the Latino community while once again painting Democrats as more interested in protecting the education establishment than in offering any real solutions of their own.


Democrats' long history of failure to fully embrace education reform has damaged the party in many ways. It has hurt the party's public image, reinforcing the sense that Democrats are captive to their constituent interest groups, including unions. Teachers have a fundamental right to organize, and teachers' unions have many positive effects on education, supporting needed funding and the larger Democratic agenda. But the NEA's resistance to reform reinforces the notion that Democrats can't be trusted to act in the larger public interest. More importantly, Democrats' education-policy failures have been bad for low-income, minority, and immigrant children--the very children Democrats purport to represent. The standard Democratic education platform (more funding, more teachers, no real accountability, no real choice) does nothing to reform dysfunctional urban school systems or attack the deep-seated racial and economic disparities that often lurk below the surface in wealthier suburban communities. Resistance to NCLB has created some nightmarish historical ironies, as one Connecticut NAACP lawyer noted, "One can't help but remember back [to] the Dixiecrat period when certain Southern states asserted that they were not required to comply with certain federal civil-rights laws designed to protect people's rights."

These failures create numerous political openings for Republicans. Charter schools, for example, bring fresh entrepreneurial energy, innovation, and competition into the education sector. They give low-income parents new public-education options without subsidizing unaccountable parochial schools. They're open to all students via lottery, so parents choose the schools--not the other way around. While some charter schools haven't performed well, others, like the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network of schools, have produced results for low-income minority students that are unmatched by traditional public schools. Charter schools aren't intrinsically labor-unfriendly--the United Federation of Teachers operates a pair in New York. In other words, charter schools retain the good features of conservative school-choice ideas while eliminating the bad.

Yet most charter schools continue to be opposed by teachers' unions and Democrats in many states. This leaves the door open for more radical choice-based privatization schemes like school vouchers. Vouchers are poor policy, breaching the church/state barrier and producing little in the way of positive results. But for minority parents whose children are stuck in terribly run public schools, the promise of a voucher is better than nothing--which too often is what the standard Democratic education agenda provides.

Democrats have made great strides in recent years in seizing control of issues like health care and the environment, adopting far-reaching agendas around which broad, winning coalitions can be built. Even once-insurmountable areas like tax policy are starting to seem within reach. But while Republicans deliberately manipulated language to nefarious ends in those areas--the estate tax becomes the "death tax" and so on--Democrats' rhetorical disadvantage on education is largely of their own making. Broadly supported ideas like public school choice and accountability for student learning have become disassociated with the party because Democrats made it so. The negative impact of this has been hidden in recent years by President Bush's overwhelming overall unpopularity. But he'll be gone soon, and Democrats may have full responsibility for governance. If they don't move past Bush-bashing to real education reform, Republicans will once again be in a position to score some easy political points by simply observing that many public schools could be a whole lot better than they are.


To avoid this fate, Democrats just have to listen to the members of their party who are actually responsible for crafting education policy and running public schools. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, chairmen of the Senate and House committees that govern education, are perfect examples: Both are reliable, experienced liberals with proven track records on a range of health, labor, and social-justice issues. After decades of studying education issues firsthand, both Kennedy and Miller have come down firmly on the side of reform. Miller recently explained, "For too long, school districts and states really covered up and ignored the fact that the bottom 30 percent of our students were simply being ignored … nobody was accountable for how they were doing." Miller has also pushed to reform the way teachers are recruited, trained, deployed, and paid. And in an early 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Kennedy laments that NCLB has become "a political football." Recalling his brother's Senate testimony, he writes, "Simplistic campaign rhetoric hardly reflects what's actually happening on school reform." Kennedy and Miller have repeatedly slammed President Bush for failing to support more funding for NCLB, but neither have budged on the need for testing and accountability, despite intense intraparty pressure to do so.

There are also plenty of examples at the local level, particularly in big cities, which over the past decade have been hotbeds of school reform. Mayors like Democrats Richard M. Daley in Chicago and Thomas Menino in Boston, and Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg in New York have staked their political credibility on fixing poor-performing schools by installing reform-minded school chancellors. Test scores in all three cities have risen substantially, outpacing other urban areas around the nation. Newer mayors like D.C.'s Adrian Fenty have noticed and followed suit. Fenty appointed Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who says she's fully supportive of NCLB. Test scores increased significantly after a year of Rhee's reforms, faster than even the administration's supporters had expected. Democrats who actually get results for disadvantaged children deserve a great deal of consideration when it comes to the merits of education reform.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Blumenthal in Connecticut has continued to doggedly push his lawsuit, losing a series of court decisions along the way. And Connecticut has continued to distinguish itself by maintaining the largest achievement gaps between white and black students in the nation.

There is, however, a positive example of successful reform just one state away, in Massachusetts. In the early 1990s, the state overhauled its school-funding system, investing heavily in high-poverty school districts, which now receive more money on average than low-poverty districts receive. Massachusetts has strong teachers' unions and among the highest teacher salaries and lowest student-to-teacher ratios in the nation. The state has become a leader in pushing for extending the school day to provide students with more learning time. These are all elements of the standard Democratic education agenda, which in Massachusetts should be no surprise.

But at the same time it was giving schools new resources, Massachusetts asked for more performance in return. Long before NCLB, the state implemented a rigorous and well-developed set of academic standards and tests. It embraced "high stakes" policies, only granting high school diplomas to students who passed 10th-grade exams. While many states have exploited loopholes in NCLB to minimize the number of "failing" schools, Massachusetts has aggressively moved to identify and intervene in schools where test scores remain persistently low. A charter school advocacy group recently identified Massachusetts as a "high achiever" for its charter school–friendly laws.

And Massachusetts became, unequivocally, the highest- performing state in the nation. Its scores on the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress leapt ahead of other states and continued improving even after it became No. 1. Of course, Massachusetts enjoys wealth, low poverty, and high levels of parental education, all factors that contribute to educational performance. But those things were true before the early-1990s financial and accountability reforms, and the state's scores have greatly improved since then.

Education reform and progressive politics aren't incompatible. They should be inseparable. Disadvantaged students need more equitable school funding and smart, well-represented teachers along with constructive accountability and public school choice. Progressivism, after all, is founded on a belief that public institutions like schools are improvable and can be a force for good. It is grounded in an ethos of information and rationality, which is what accountability really is: gathering information about how much students are learning and taking action when they're not learning enough. When Democrats stray from these tenets in education, they end up divided, weak, and vulnerable, reduced to arguing that the nation's most egalitarian and vital public institutions aren't worth trying to improve. It's time to stop giving Republicans easy opportunities to tarnish Democrats as unwilling to make hard choices on behalf of their own children.

True, the policies are complicated and the politics are messy, but that's no excuse to shrink from the challenge. Back at the ESEA hearings in 1965, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare responded to Robert Kennedy's concerns about the effect of local control on the quality of education by saying, "That is the price of democracy." Kennedy replied: "It might be the price of democracy, but we don't have to accept it. We can attempt to do better."