Could Past K-12 Positions Haunt Democrats Seeking White House?
A restive Democratic base may demand explanations
At least three Democrats who have announced plans to seek the White House in 2020 might get into some sticky moments with primary voters when it comes to positions they've taken over the years on education issues such as school choice, corporate involvement in schools, and the connection between education and criminal justice.
Those stances from Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts probably won't top many voters' list of concerns as a crowded Democratic field takes shape. But at a time when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and rolling teacher strikes have thrust schools into more national political discussions, the presidential hopefuls will probably have to bob, weave, and otherwise clarify why those positions do—or do not—matter to their presidential runs.
Each such instance will showcase how the candidates think about different constituencies of the Democratic Party.
Will they have to spin their education records and past policy statements? And if so, how will they do it?
Patrick Riccards, who's worked with both Democrats and Republicans on communications and policy in education, said that in the early stages of the Democratic primary, it's likely that candidates and their surrogates "will call out [other] candidates for not perfectly aligning with the progressive mantle." One general strategy for these or other Democrats put under the microscope could be to use their education records to ultimately talk about other, preferred topics, he said.
"I would wrap the issues of education into the larger issues that will rally [Democratic] voters to primaries and caucuses," Riccards said, including "the larger social justice and equity discussions, as well as talk of guns and safety; weaving it into economic policy, as part of a stronger commitment to workforce development."
To Spin or Not to Spin
As the mayor of Newark, N.J., Booker made a host of decisions that many in today's Democratic Party find problematic at best. Those decisions include the promotion of charter schools, clashing with teachers' unions (even as he worked with them to craft a new contract), and promoting the prominence of Wall Street executives in education initiatives that angered teachers' unions. He also worked with Mark Zuckerberg when the Facebook founder, not beloved among many Democratic base voters at this point in the 2020 cycle, gave $100 million to Newark schools to assist in what turned out to be a controversial initiative to provide merit-pay bonuses and open charter schools, among other major changes.
Then there's DeVos. In 2016, Booker delivered a fired-up speech at a gathering of the school choice advocacy group, American Federation for Children, where DeVos was chairwoman at the time. He also previously served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice, a different group also led by DeVos.
Last fall in The 74, an education news website, Booker defended his Newark record in detail, pointing to a 20 percentage-point jump in graduation rate and schools that outperformed nearby suburban districts. "I can find no other urban district with high poverty—with high numbers of kids who qualify for free school lunches—that has shown this kind of dramatic shift in a 10-year period," he told The 74. Booker was not asked specifically about DeVos or vouchers, although around the time of her confirmation as education secretary he expressed concerns about her impact on education civil rights.
One view is that Booker simply can't cleanly spin his way out of the situation—or rather, if someone calls him out for his record, he should embrace it and not sidestep it.
Matt Frendewey, an education and political consultant who handled communications for the American Federation for Children when DeVos was the chairwoman, pointed out that many of the families Booker helped in Newark are black and Hispanic, and thus sit at the core of the Democratic electorate. Disowning instead of underscoring his work for them, he said, would probably be in vain and would only tarnish his authenticity, Frendewey said.
"He loses the ability to attract those families who are looking for a champion to fight for their kids. And he gains very little on the teachers' union side, because they're more likely to go with someone who's always been on their side," Frendewey said.
It's also possible that Booker follows in the footsteps of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who strongly backed and helped run charter schools. Polis, who left the U.S. House of Representatives to run for governor, was not in lockstep with many progressive Democrats in the last few years about choice, yet he won the Colorado gubernatorial primary and general elections last year. Then again, statewide elections are not the same as national elections.
As for DeVos, Booker voted against her confirmation as education secretary. He also could contrast his work in Newark, which included more money for public schools, with DeVos' work in Detroit, said Charles Barone, the chief policy officer at Democrats for Education Reform, which has had a close relationship with Booker and supports school choice.
The Booker campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
'Education Not Incarceration'
Harris might have a different rhetorical challenge.
As a senator and presidential contender, she has persistently emphasized how bolstering education is a cost-beneficial solution to problems of incarceration. Yet in a speech at the Chicago Ideas Week event in 2012, when she was California's attorney general, she made light of posters that proclaimed, "Build more schools less jails" and "Put money into education not prisons." While she said she agreed with those sentiments "conceptually," she criticized what she deemed were their tenuous connection to people's fears: "You have not addressed the reason I have three padlocks on my front door."
Elsewhere in the speech, however, she talked about the challenges facing innovation in criminal justice policy, and how the knee-jerk reaction to lock people up regardless of the types of crime is misguided.
And Harris has also attracted attention for her support for California legislation in 2014, when she was still the state's top law-enforcement officer, that included a provision that could lead to parents' arrest if their children were chronically truant. (At the time, a spokesman for Harris stressed that these arrests were extremely rare.)
Harris also discussed her support for taking a tough approach to elementary school truancy in a 2010 speech when she was serving as the San Francisco district attorney, when she said, "I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime."
The Harris campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
It's tough to boil down her stance on that issue into one neat sound bite. In that 2010 speech, somewhat contradicting her later Chicago remarks, Harris called it a "myth" to assume that tackling problems in education was a small issue not related to criminal-justice policy. That stance calls to mind some Democrats' emphasis on breaking the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline." She also said that, "It is a myth to assume and think that children are resilient."
Still, her approach to criminal justice issues has come under attack from some portions of potential Democratic primary voters, and these previous positions on education could be folded into that stream of ongoing criticisms.
Warren might face a similar but more limited conundrum to the one Booker might confront.
In a book published in 2003 when she was a Harvard Law School professor, she advocated for what might be called interdistrict enrollment, in which students could enroll in public schools outside the traditional boundary areas. Arguing that quality schools were inextricably linked to high property values in wealthy neighborhoods, Warren said that breaking this connection would help many families.
"At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school," Warren and her co-author, Amelia Warren Tyagi, wrote in The Two-Income Trap, adding that while "voucher" had become a loaded word due to its association with private schools, "A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly."
However, as a U.S. senator since 2012, Warren hasn't backed private school vouchers or tax-credit scholarships. She's been a huge critic of DeVos, who has made choice her signature issue. And in 2016, Warren came out against a Massachusetts ballot initiative to increase the number of charter schools in the state. (It was defeated.)
"Senator Warren does not support private school vouchers and never has," a Warren aide said in response to a question to her campaign about her 2003 proposal, a response that didn't address her previous idea of interdistrict public school choice.
She's also knit tighter connections with the teachers' unions in recent years. She quickly praised the recent teachers' strike in Los Angeles (like many Democratic power players), and last year told an American Federation of Teachers' convention that, "America is failing its teachers."
Still, in the end, Riccards warned the candidates against trying to spit-shine every talking point about their education records.
"Current Democratic candidates are largely writing doctoral dissertations to counter the Trump sound bite," he wrote. "Diving deep into education policy will only make them worse."
Vol. 38, Issue 21, Pages 19, 21Published in Print: February 13, 2019, as Could Past K-12 Positions Haunt White House Hopefuls?