At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.
Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.
When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.
Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.
The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.
DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.
The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.
In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.
To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:
First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.
Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.
All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.
Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.
Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.
The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.
Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.
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