Federal Opinion

Growing Inequality Is Visible in K-12 Politics

By David Menefee-Libey — March 27, 2015 6 min read
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Following up on my post last week about how schools can’t fix economic or political inequality, this week we have seen renewed evidence that things work the other way ‘round. Nationally, growing economic and political inequality increasingly empowers the wealthy in fights for control of schools and schooling. Is California next?

First, a national case in point: as Hillary Clinton assembles her presidential campaign, the New York Times reports that she is being pressed to choose between two factions within the Democratic coalition. The Times describes these two factions as

the teachers who supported her once and are widely expected to back her again, but also from a group of wealthy and influential Democratic financiers who staunchly support many of the same policies -- charter schools and changes to teacher tenure and testing -- that the teachers’ unions have resisted throughout President Obama’s two terms in office.

Growing economic and political inequality has turned this into a serious problem for Clinton and other Democratic candidates and office-holders. The one-percenters who can make large campaign donations have more money than ever. In the post-Citizens United world, they can contribute unlimited amounts of money to their favored candidates. And, as in all other policy areas these days, those one-percenters want to call the shots in K-12 education.

It’s an interesting and revealing moment for schools and American politics. The first, older Democratic faction identified in that piece is comprised of hundreds of thousands of teachers who live and work in virtually every American city and town, many of whom are members of the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. They work in classrooms and schools every day, and have participated in the long-term development and evolution of American schools. Politically in the Democratic party, they have for decades done the grassroots work of talking with friends and neighbors, recruiting local candidates, serving as party officers and delegates, and turning out voters on election day. Their unions also contribute to Democratic candidates like Clinton.

This faction is influential not just because they do all this work (and vote in large numbers) but also because, as annual Gallup polls tell us, most teachers are respected by their friends and neighbors.

The second, newer faction is led by a few dozen billionaires and millionaires who insist that the American educational system is stagnant and in “crisis,” and must be “disrupted,” dismantled, and transformed.

It’s a bipartisan movement, of course: every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama has supported it. Within the Democratic party, these wealthy activists and their allies in organizations like Democrats for Education Reform have taken on the mantle of “reform” and pressed a program in which traditional public schools must be replaced by privately run charter schools, teacher tenure must be abolished or scaled back, and all the work of students, teachers, and principals must be organized around regular high-stakes testing.

This faction is influential among Democratic candidates and office-holders because, as the New York Times reports, their campaign donations fuel Democratic campaigns. They are also connected: Charles Kerchner and I have been told that the top levels of the Obama administration’s Education Department, led by “reformer” Arne Duncan, only hire people who are “cleared” by Democrats for Education Reform.

The constant refrain of “reformers” since the 1980s has been that “our schools are in crisis,” and that the “education establishment” can’t or won’t fix them. It’s a familiar argument, going back to the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, which famously sounded the alarm that

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

In 1983, the great fear was that Japan, with its excellent schools, would soon overtake the United States as leader of the global economy. (These days, we’re more worried about Finland, or South Korea, or something.) Only outsiders were capable of bringing the change necessary to save us.

Over the last thirty years, one element of the “reform” view has grown to become foundational: the call for dismantling the public sector system of state education departments, school districts governed by elected school boards, and public-employee centered schools where unions have thrived since the 1970s. The “reform” program strongly resembles the management consulting approach to business organizations that has emerged since the 1970s, and its advocates often use business-speak and business practices, including high-stakes accountability, contingent employment, contracting out, “takeovers” and “turnarounds,” “best practices,” and trust that “disruption” will lead to constructive change. (A prime exemplar of “disruption” thinking is Clayton Christenson’s book Disrupting Class from 2011. For a strong challenge, see Jill Lepore’s 2014 essay “The Disruption Machine” in the New Yorker.)

The leaders of this faction have also spent the last thirty years building an educational counter-establishment. Research scholars like Sarah Reckhow (Michigan State) and Janelle Scott (UC-Berkeley) have documented the ways that “reform"-oriented donors and organizations like the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing networks to recruit and train like-minded teachers (through programs like Teach for America), principals (through organizations like New Leaders, New Schools), and other school leaders.

This factional contest looks a little different in California. On one hand, the “reformers” scored an important victory last spring in the Vergara lawsuit challenging the state’s teacher tenure and due process laws. We wrote extensively about that suit last year on this blog, and will continue to do so as the appeals process unfolds.

For the most part, though, “reformers” have found less support within the Democratic party in California than they have nationwide, and they have been less successful in pushing aside the state’s teacher unions. Their candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Marshall Tuck, lost the 2014 November election despite huge donations from wealthy individuals like Eli Broad, William Bloomfield, and Doris Fisher, as well as strong support from the California DFER affiliate.

And Jerry Brown, the state’s popular governor, has been more than willing to collaborate with unionized teachers and lead the Democratically-controlled legislature to enact strong school finance reform and curricular reforms grounded in the public sector. When running for reelection last year, Brown was able to avoid the kind of factional choice that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats may face heading into 2016.

But I wonder how long California - with its own large and growing economic inequality - will remain such an exception. Let’s watch Kamala Harris and the other Democrats running for Barbara Boxer’s seat in the US Senate in 2016, and listen to what they say about schools.

The opinions expressed in On California 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.