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Democrats’ Platform: End High-Stakes Tests, Limit Charters, Pay Teachers More

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 20, 2020 5 min read
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The Democratic Party supports tripling federal aid to disadvantaged students to close funding gaps between nonwhite students and their white peers, “more stringent guardrails” for charter schools, and the idea that education is a public good and not a commodity, according to its new 2020 platform.

The party’s platform, which Democrats officially adopted on Tuesday, pledges to use federal programs to promote school integration through magnet schools and transportation initiatives. That promise calls to mind last year’s intense confrontation over K-12 desegregation efforts between former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s set to become the party’s official presidential nominee this week, and his pick for vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

The platform also calls for a more-diverse teaching workforce that relies on stronger partnerships with historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

In addition, the document says Democrats want to keep K-12 schools free from immigration enforcement, calls on remote instruction caused by the coronavirus pandemic to be “individualized to the greatest possible extent” for all students, and opposes publicly backed private school choice programs like the one at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.

The platform also highlights early-education by promises to provide universal prekindergarten programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and says the party will “guarantee” child care to lower- and middle-income families.

“The platform before us recognizes that improving education is the force multiplier for addressing the rest of our priorities,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a discussion of the party platform late last month before it was finalized. “You get education right, there’s a path forward. You get it wrong, you’re going to hit a dead end.”

Rifts in the Party

In many respects, the new platform mirrors the education recommendations from a task force assembled earlier this year by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the runner-up in the 2020 primary. And that task force, in turn, drew on several education plans put forward by Democratic candidates for president during the 2020 primary that made big, if not extravagant, promises on funding and other issues. Title I funding for disadvantaged students that Democrats want to increase by 300 percent, for example, increased by 2.8 percent from the last fiscal year to this one.

The platform demonstrates ways in which the national Democratic Party has changed in recent years, and how those shifts have exposed some divisions within the party.

In 2000, for example, Democrats said they wanted to triple the number of charter schools. In 2020, the platform not only calls for a ban on charter schools run by for-profit entities—a decision that’s up to states and not Washington—but says charters should be governed by the same requirements for transparency and accountability as traditional public schools.

“We will call for conditioning federal funding for new, expanded charter schools or for charter school renewals on a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students,” the platform states, referring to $440 million in federal aid to support charter expansion that House Democrats want to cut by nearly 10 percent.

Some supporters of charter schools among Democrats have fought against this trend in the national party, saying that many Black and Hispanic voters support charters even as white Democrats increasingly turn against them.

Testing is another example of tension among Democrats. The platform says Democrats will encourage states to move away from “high-stakes tests” (which the platform doesn’t define but which often refers to tests that are used to inform teacher evaluations and school ratings). It instead encourages states “to develop reliable, continuous, evidence-based approaches to student assessment” that is disaggregated by different student groups.

This position reflects years of pushback against traditional summative assessments from teachers’ unions and testing skeptics, who say the exams subvert teaching and ultimately serve little purpose except to be used as weapons against educators and students. Biden actually called for an end to standardized exams in schools during a public forum late last year, although the platform doesn’t go quite that far.

Yet key congressional Democrats, education civil rights groups, and others who would largely back the Democrats’ new platform support the use of tests for accountability purposes like those mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. They say such tests keep a spotlight on underserved students, create pressure for certain schools to improve, and help those schools get additional funding.

In a Washington Post op-ed, for example, Chad Aldeman and Alex Spurrier of the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners say that a Biden administration that abandons such tests and charter schools would undermine the cause of racial and socioeconomic equity in education instead of bolstering it.

“Though the platform’s policies on education may seem ‘woke’ or trendy, they would actually steer Biden away from the coalition of Black and low-income voters who brought him the nomination,” Aldeman and Spurrier wrote. (Aldeman used to work at the Education Department during the Obama administration.)

Ultimately, the platform clearly focuses on additional funding and desegregation measures—such as the Strength in Diversity Act that would provide districts resources to voluntarily integrate schools—when it considers educational equity, not charters and tests. But specifics aren’t always forthcoming: The platform says Democrats “will fight to significantly increase pay and benefits for all educators,” yet doesn’t go as far as promising a minimum national salary of $60,000 for teachers like Sanders did during the 2020 campaign.

Read the full platform below (the section on education begins on page 64):

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