Federal Opinion

Corporate Reform Puts Democratic Party Leaders in a Bind

By Anthony Cody — April 17, 2013 3 min read
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Leaders of the Democratic Party are finding themselves in a potentially dangerous bind due to their enthusiastic embrace of increasingly unpopular corporate education reforms. Under the Obama administration, many state and city leaders of the party have been vocal proponents of corporate reform. We have seen Newark mayor Cory Booker, Sacramento mayor and husband of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Johnson, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Connecticut governor Malloy, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigoso, all identify themselves with various aspects of corporate reform, pursuing mayoral control, closing schools, and signing on to full support for the Obama administration’s test-driven education policies.

But the voters are becoming disillusioned with some key aspects of these policies. The Republicans sense an opportunity, and although many of their mainstream leaders, such as Jeb Bush, have been advancing these same reforms, some in the party are rebelling. The Republican National Committee this week adopted a resolution that states, in part:

WHEREAS, the NGA and the CCSSO, received tens of millions of dollars from private third parties to advocate for and develop the CCSS strategy, subsequently created the CCSS through a process that was not subject to any freedom of information acts or other sunshine laws, and never piloted the CCSS....
WHEREAS, even though Federal Law prohibits the federalizing of curriculum (2.), the Obama Administration accepted the CCSS plan and used 2009 Stimulus Bill money to reward the states that were most committed to the president's CCSS agenda; but, they failed to give states, their legislatures and their citizens time to evaluate the CCSS before having to commit to them, and
WHEREAS, the NGA and CCSSO in concert with the same corporations developing the CCSS 'assessments' have created new textbooks, digital media and other teaching materials aligned to the standards which must be purchased and adopted by local school districts in order that students may effectively compete on CCSS 'assessments', and
RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee recognizes the CCSS for what it is- an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived "normal," and, be it further
RESOLVED, That the Republican National Committee rejects the collection of personal student data for any non-educational purpose without the prior written consent of an adult student or a child student's parent and that it rejects the sharing of such personal data, without the prior written consent of an adult student or a child student's parent, with any person or entity other than schools or education agencies within the state, and be it finally
RESOLVED, the 2012 Republican Party Platform specifically states the need to repeal the numerous federal regulations which interfere with State and local control of public schools, (p36) (3.); and therefore, the Republican National Committee rejects this CCSS plan which creates and fits the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.

This echoes recent criticism of the Common Core from conservatives such as Glenn Beck. Many progressives have likewise been critical of the Common Core, as evidenced by this joint statement from Paul Horton and Heather Patenaude. Some, like Susan Ohanian, have been raising concerns from the start. This is taking a toll on the states that Common Core had in their “adopted” column. We have long heard that 45 states have adopted the Common Core. However this map shows that in addition to the five states that have rejected Common Core, another 11 states are considering dumping them.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan spent time yesterday urging business titans to step up their support for the Common Core, to prevent further erosion. ExxonMobil has been running TV ads in support already. So while the Republican base is unhappy with Common Core, the corporate sponsors of the party may still be on board.

The other side of the pincer is coming from core base of the Democratic Party, the teacher unions. The Obama administration has pretty much taken both NEA and AFT support for granted. The NEA voted to endorse the President more than a year before the last election, and neither union has offered much organized resistance to Race to the Top or Common Core. But that may be starting to change. In California this week, the state Democratic Party convention voted to condemn Michelle Rhee’s Students First and the hedge fund-sponsored Democrats for Education Reform.

The California resolution reads:

Supporting California's Public Schools and Dispelling the Corporate "Reform" Agenda
Whereas, the reform initiatives of Students First, rely on destructive anti-educator policies that do nothing for students but blame educators and their unions for the ills of society, make testing the goal of education, shatter communities by closing their public schools, and see public schools as potential profit centers and children as measureable commodities; and
Whereas, the political action committee, entitled Democrats for Education Reform is funded by corporations, Republican operatives and wealthy individuals dedicated to privatization and anti-educator initiatives, and not grassroots democrats or classroom educators; and
Whereas, the billionaires funding Students First and Democrats for Education Reform are supporting candidates and local programs that would dismantle a free public education for every student in California and replace it with company run charter schools, non-credentialed teachers and unproven untested so-called "reforms";
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the California Democratic Party reaffirms its commitment to free accessible public schools for all which offer a fair, substantive opportunity to learn with educators who have the right to be represented by their union, bargain collectively and have a voice in the policies which affect their schools, classrooms and their students;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the California Democratic Party send this resolution to all elected Democratic leaders in California, publicize the corporate and Republican funding of these groups and work with the authors of this resolution to dispel the false reforms and support the real needs of the classroom: trained teachers, adequate funding, safe and clean facilities, diverse and stimulating curriculum and access to pre-school and higher education.

The Democratic Party has an internal battle ahead that goes to the very core of its spirit. Educators remain a core constituency, and public education reflects absolute core values. But the resolution by the California party convention is a signal that the road may no longer be smooth for leaders who embrace privatization and school closures. And the new focus by the GOP on an ever-less popular Common Core puts some Democrats in a spot where they do not have much wiggle room.

These political winds are compounded by rapidly growing dissatisfaction with the overemphasis on testing. And as the new assessments aligned with the Common Core arrive, there is a fresh problem. The Common Core has been sold on the basis that it will take us away from the bad old tests associated with NCLB. However, tests are tests, and the Common Core brings even longer ones, for more students and more subjects. Those who were initially pleased with the idea of a change are losing hope, as they learn that test scores are likely to drop by as much as 30% when the tests are in place.

The first major victim of this political trend was actually a Republican; Tony Bennett of Indiana. Bennett was defeated last fall by teacher Glenda Ritz, who received support not only from educators and parents, but also from conservatives who dislike the Common Core. But Democrats associated with corporate reform may suffer the same fate, if they do not follow California’s lead.

What do you think? Are Democratic cheerleaders for corporate reform in a bind? How can they escape?

Continue the dialogue with @anthonycody on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.