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Political analyst James Carville in New York City. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/WireImage)

Political analyst James Carville in New York City. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/WireImage)

‘What are we supposed to feel here?’ Education reformers look for answers amid a blue wave

Democrats flipped statehouses, won governorships, and gained control of the House this month, even as a handful of the most high-profile contests slipped from their grasp.

But the blue wave swept in a number of politicians who campaigned against key elements of the education reform agenda, including charter schools and test-based accountability for schools and teachers.

That, along with the unpopularity of charter supporter Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on the left, makes it a precarious moment for Democrats who support this particular brand of education reform. Many of them gathered in Boulder, Colorado, this week at the annual Philos Conference put on by a group affiliated with Democrats For Education Reform.

Democratic political strategists James Carville and Joel Benenson told the audience members that they need to tell success stories, keep working with politicians across the ideological spectrum, hold teachers up as heroes, and be cautious about the alliances they form, whether with unscrupulous charter operators or more conservative school reform advocates whose priorities are simply too different.

“Education reform advocates have many successful stories to tell around the country,” Carville said. “We also have to understand that there are a lot of shoddy operators out there, a lot of education flim-flam people who make money off these children and don’t care about them.”

Carville derided the idea of using taxpayer money for religious schools in particular.

“There are a lot of people who claim to be in your sphere who are not in it, and we have got to be very careful of that,” he said.

Both Carville, who made his national reputation working for former President Bill Clinton’s campaign, and Benenson, who worked for the campaigns of former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, acknowledged that they are not darlings of the left-most wing of the Democratic Party. They said that they continue to believe that elections will be won more often by appealing to moderates than by energizing the most progressive voters, and warned of the dangers of “litmus tests” for candidates, especially at the presidential level.

“The first objective of a political party is to win the election, not win the argument,” Carville said. “We win the argument every time, but if we don’t win the election, it’s not worth a damn.”

Anna Marcucio, a program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, asked a question that gets to the heart of what Democratic reformers are struggling with right now.

“When I hear you talking about the importance of winning statehouses and the importance of flipping governorships — [Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew] Gillum, for example, actively campaigned to dismantle some of the strongest education policies in the country, policies that are serving low-income kids, minority kids, really well,” she said. (On the campaign trail, Gillum was critical of for-profit charter schools and said he would try to end the state’s tax-credit voucher program, which subsidizes private school for low-income students. He narrowly lost to Republican Ron DeSantis, who supports charters and vouchers.)

“As ed reform activists, what are we supposed to feel here?” Marcucio continued. “And how are we supposed to work with these candidates — really high-profile, really high-potential — in a way that is actively moving our agenda forward?” (The Walton Family Foundation supports Chalkbeat.)

Benenson said advocates should keep working with elected officials at every level of government while expressing their message in practical, not ideological, terms. And reformers must acknowledge that schools need more money and work to provide it, both said.

“The education reform message has a lot of public support, but there are also things we have to recognize as we go towards 2020,” Benenson said. “We have to get to a point where we can neutralize the funding question.”

Charter schools continue to draw more support than opposition in national polls, but have seen support among Democrats decline recently. Opponents argue that even nonprofit charter schools divert money and students from district schools, sometimes without serving students with the greatest needs. School closures have been traumatic for many communities without delivering promised improvements, critics charge.

Amid this ongoing debate about how to best serve students, a wave of teacher strikes and protests over the last year drew attention to low pay and poor working conditions in many districts.

“People who say money is not the issue are usually people who have money,” Carville said.

Both men said that supporters of reform have to be careful not to demonize teachers, with Carville calling teachers “heroes” to much applause.

That can be a challenging message to deliver at moments when reformers’ preferred policies run up against those of teachers unions. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy made that tension clear in the conference’s opening address, when he criticized Democrats who he said prioritized the interests of teachers over those of students.

“Some of my strongest opposition to what we did in Connecticut came from other Democrats,” he said, referring to legislation that laid out a process for intervening in low-performing districts and imposed stricter teacher evaluations, as well as increased state funding to poor districts. It eventually passed unanimously in a compromise that didn’t go as far as Malloy initially wanted.

“Democrats who on other issues would stand strong against any discrimination, against any disparate outcomes, found that supporting their local teachers or their local board of education was an acceptable excuse to accept what we know is not tolerable, that poor children and black children and brown children do not get the education or the opportunities they deserve,” Malloy said.

And he said progressive reformers need to hold Democrats accountable when they become “weak-kneed” and “fold to teachers.”

The opening session included incoming Colorado Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg, who will preside over a newly Democratic state Senate. Colorado’s incoming Speaker of the House K.C. Becker, who saw her Democratic majority expand, was also in attendance. Gov.-elect Jared Polis, who founded two charter schools, also appeared Wednesday evening.

Democratic dominance in Colorado may bring its own intraparty tensions: Earlier this year, the state Democratic Party voted overwhelmingly to denounce DFER. Vanessa Quintana, an activist who helped spearhead the anti-DFER resolution, tweeted that “it is time to flip” the seats of politicians who attended the DFER event.

Matt Barnum contributed reporting.