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The Education Reform Movement Is as Liberal as Hollywood, This Study Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 11, 2019 10 min read
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Do supporters of Democrats pretty much have the education reform movement in a vise grip?

Two education researchers say they do indeed, despite protests to the contrary. And they argue the potential consequences of this political monoculture could be quite harmful. But their new report has quickly attracted criticism in the education community.

In “Education Reform’s Deep Blue Hue: Are School Reformers Right-Wingers or Centrists—or Neither?” Jay P. Greene and Frederick M. Hess analyze political campaign donations—mostly over the past decade— from staffers at organizations receiving grants from two large philanthropies involved in education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

The groups highlighted in their study include a Who’s Who of organizations that focus on issues including charter schools, changes to traditional educator labor rules, academic standards, robust school accountability, among them: Achieve, the New Schools Venture Fund, the Education Trust, Education Reform Now, KIPP, the New Schools Venture Fund, Teacher For America, and others. (To be clear, not all those groups work on all those issues.) Hess and Greene coded results for all the groups receiving at least $500,000 in the most recent annual reports from Gates and Walton, and also sampled groups receiving less cash.

The results, Greene and Hess say, speak for themselves. For example, as the above chart from Greene and Hess indicates, 99 percent of the 2,617 contributions from staffers at Gates Foundation grant recipients went to Democratic causes, while just eight contributions total went to Republican causes. Staffers at groups benefitting from Walton largesse showed slightly more partisan diversity in their donations, with 87 percent of all grantees’ donations going to Democrats. Finally, donations from researchers who presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy in 2018 going to Democratic causes 96 percent of the time, Greene and Hess found.

But even as some activists falsely attack the education reform movement as largely the work of “right-wing privatizers” and neoliberals, the trend across those groups is clear, the two researchers argue.

“Remarkably, the deep blue hue of Gates and Walton education grantees ... rivals the leftward lean we see in Democratic precincts such as Hollywood and public-employee unions,” Greene and Hess write, adding that “education reform’s partisan tilt may help explain some of its setbacks and reversals of recent years.”

Greene is the chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute who also writes a blog at (Education Week currently receives grant funding from the Walton Foundation and has previously received funding from the Gates Foundation, but Greene said in an email that to his knowledge the study did not reveal anything regarding donations from Education Week employees.)

The ‘Fallacious Assumption’ of Education Reformers

As part of their study, Greene and Hess highlight a 2017 Education Week survey of educators’ political leanings; while a plurality of respondents (41 percent) said they were affiliated with the Democratic Party, 30 percent said they were independents and 27 percent identified as Republicans. Hess said that survey is one indication that actual educators are much more diverse politically than the education reform sphere might presume—and such a presumption doesn’t help them, he stressed.

Let’s first focus on what at least one of the authors believes are the ultimate consequences of this “deep blue hue,” using the Common Core State Standards and school choice as two examples.

In an interview, Hess said the standards’ supporters in the education reform community, and leaders like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, were unable or unwilling to forge political support for them on the right. He argued that they assumed conservatives would be fine with the standards, and instead rushed to shore up support among people like the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, an early fan of the standards.

“That was a fallacious assumption. There was an assumption that these suburban families in red states were going to be on board, that Jeb Bush and a couple of retired governors could keep them in line,” Hess said, noting that he expressed concerns about the politics around the common core early in its lifespan. By the time the reform community realized its mistake, he said, the standards had been permanently damaged.

In a fight of a more recent vintage, Hess noted that earlier this year, following teacher protests in West Virginia that focused in part on the state legislature’s consideration of a bill to allow charter schools, lawmakers there effectively killed the bill.

“What I heard from the legislators was: ‘Why are we supposed to take bullets for these organizations?’” Hess said, referring to education reform groups. He added that while many Republicans do like charter schools in principle, they increasingly see creating allies among charter proponents in the education reform community as partnering with “social agendas that they disagree with.”

And that gets to a two-part argument from Hess. On the one hand, he said that many education reform groups pitch themselves as bipartisan, nonpartisan, and centrist. On the other hand, he said that rather than focusing tightly on more technical issues like charters, accountability, and labor practices, they’ve created an atmosphere that pretty much shuts out those with views on areas like social and racial justice that don’t toe the liberal line.

“Are these organizations making any effort to reach out to people who hold conservative values? Are they making it OK to work in these organizations [for those] who think differently about how it’s constructive to talk about race?” Hess asked. “They have chosen to make litmus tests about issues that aren’t necessarily about the core of their work.”

By contrast, Hess said, “Movements that are able to get things done—they have agreements in principle on certain issues. And they have ambassadors that go and talk to the right, and they have ambassadors that go and talk to the left. ... We do think there has been a lot of self-deception and a lot of confusion about where things stand.”

Varied Responses to Hess and Greene

Several people have shared responses to the work from Greene and Hess, who published a Wall Street Journal piece on their findings last week. Not surprisingly, many came from the education reform community itself.

For one thing, many argue that irrespective of how liberal many of the aforementioned groups’ employees are, and irrespective of how many reform groups get money from Gates and Walton, there are conservative or right-leaning advocacy groups that are commonly referred to as “education reform” organizations. Two examples many might point to are the Jeb Bush-led Foundation for Excellence in Education and the (aptly named for this debate) Center for Education Reform, and that have had notable policy influence over time.

Jeanne Allen, the Center for Education Reform’s founder, called Hess and Greene’s work a “great piece” for noting much of the education reform community’s bubble, but also said it was “not entirely accurate.”

Hess acknowledged that there are some conservatives working in education reform, but that this doesn’t ultimately rebut the concerns raised by his new study with Greene.

On Friday, Stacey Childress, the head of the New Schools Venture Fund and a former deputy director at Gates, appeared to disparage the Hess-Greene study as part of an ultimately incoherent set of attacks on her group’s work:

Then there’s the argument that’s surfaced claiming that to the extent these groups do have staffers who overwhelmingly donate to Democrats, it’s justified because of what many perceive as the odious conduct by Republicans in recent years, particularly under President Donald Trump, but also after President George W. Bush’s administration. Others criticized the report by saying people like Hess for stirring up opposition to things like the common core, and then cynically blamed others for its political maladies:

(Biddle is an education writer and speaker, while Fasteau is a former Capitol Hill Democratic staffer who now works at EducationCounsel.)

What about the argument that staffers’ donations might reflect the reality that many Republicans, for various reasons, might have retreated from working on “education reform” policies, except for school choice? Hess said he finds it “unsatisfying” to believe that the GOP and conservatives went from very interested to uninterested in these issues over the last 15 years, dating back to the No Child Left Behind Act.

As for specific consequences of what Hess alleged: What about the argument that more than one political force undermined the common core, as unions and progressives eventually used the standards to savage testing’s place in accountability, while conservative activists quickly pounced on common core’s political links to the Obama administration? Here’s that view as summed up by David DeSchryver of Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm:

Hess dismissed this theory as a misplaced excuse, a plea for the standards’ middle-of-the-road appeal, lodged only in retrospect from common-core supporters.

The Greene-Hess thesis also overrates the extent to which the politics of education reform groups and their staffers has had a negative impact, argued Benjamin Riley, the founder of Deans for Impact, which works on teacher preparation in higher education.

But is focusing on partisanship and political alignment the right way to frame issues in and problems for the education reform community? Ed Fuller, an assistant professor of education at Penn State University, said no:

The larger point behind Fuller’s critique is that the education reform community’s focus on charters, new labor rules, and accountability is not really about Democratic politics per se, even if nearly all donations from staffers getting money from big players like Gates and Walton go to Democrats.

It’s also important to highlight instances of where these organizations do not hew to what are common liberal or progressive lines on education issues specifically. Teach For America, for example, caught heat last month when it encouraged its members to cross the picket line during a potential strike in Oakland.

The broader concerns raised in the study are far from new, and are not new from the study’s authors. Just last August, in fact, Greene published a blog post about the political biases of many in the education research community with the title, “Professors are getting more liberal.”

We reached out to Achieve, Teach For America, and the Alliance for Excellent Education to gauge responses from three of the groups Greene and Hess highlighted; if we hear back from them, we’ll update this post.

Read a Greene-Hess piece on their study here (the piece was published jointly by the American Enterprise Institute and Education Next, an education policy and politics journal)

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