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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Politically Speaking, ‘School Reform’ Has Gone Hollywood

By Rick Hess — March 12, 2019 4 min read
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Earlier this week, Jay Greene and I released a new study at Education Next. We reported that, contrary to conventional wisdom—which holds that “school reform” is a right-wing movement, or perhaps a centrist one—"school reformers” are overwhelmingly left-leaning. In fact, 87 percent or more of the political contributions made over the last decade by staff at leading school reform organizations went to Democratic candidates and causes.

We examined the political campaign contributions made by individuals working in 267 education reform organizations which receive support from either the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Walton Family Foundation. We found that 99 percent of the 2,600 contributions made by employees at Gates grantees and 87 percent of the 3,900 made by employees at Walton grantees were directed to Democrats. In other words, it’s safe to say that, over the past decade, the leading “school reform” organizations are about as blue as Hollywood or a university humanities faculty.

As you might imagine, a number of questions have been raised about what this means—or whether it means anything at all. I’ll offer a few thoughts on that.

First off, let’s be clear about two big things that the paper doesn’t address. One is that Jay and I don’t claim to know why “school reform” has become so blue or who is “responsible.” We’re just describing where things stand. The second is that we don’t know what, if anything, can be done about all this.

I do, however, want to offer a few words in response to all those who’ve shrugged and said, “Well, good riddance to those Republicans. They’re all a bunch of deplorables, anyway.” Without trying here to rebut a charge that I find ridiculous, it’s worth trying to clarify just why reform’s progressive uniformity is a practical problem for school improvement. After all, changing education policy or practice is tough sledding even with bipartisan support—in Washington, and in most states, it’s a nonstarter without that kind of coalition. For an example of just how much such coalitions matter, especially in a polarized nation, one only need look at criminal justice reform, where a web of once-stalled efforts to reshape policies and practices have taken off due to a broad array of committed supporters on right and left.

Indeed, I think reformers generally fail to appreciate how much their struggles of the past decade (with the Common Core, teacher evaluation, testing, and more) have been aggravated by lukewarm support—or even outright opposition—in red America, due largely to the fact that reform efforts haven’t been informed in recent years by conservative views or values.

Okay, I’ll pause a moment while readers roll their eyes and sputter, “But Rick, that’s ridiculous! These are conservative ideas, or at least they’re ideas that conservatives love!!”

My response: Conservatives love testing? Really? Not necessarily. George W. Bush certainly liked and likes testing. The U.S. Chamber and the Business Roundtable like testing. But lots of small town, rural, and suburban Republicans have long been “meh” on testing. They like the idea of schools being accountable, but they worry about privacy and classrooms disrupted by the schemings of far-off eggheads. Over the past decade, as those concerns boiled, Republicans found few reformers willing or able to allay them. Rather, advocates increasingly argued that testing was needed to allow bureaucrats in state capitals or Washington to provide race-conscious oversight. It’s hard to think of a tack less likely to reassure Republican skeptics.

Conservatives love teacher evaluation systems? Ummm . . . Generally speaking, are Republicans big fans of having state government adopt one-size-fits-all systems for evaluating people? I don’t think so. Sure, conservatives mostly distrust teacher unions and like the idea of public employees being held accountable. But, again, those “red” arguments tended to get lost amidst blue-centric talking points which seemed designed to demonize suburban communities and favor bureaucratic, race-conscious strategies promising to redistribute “effective” teachers out of middle-class schools. Again, this doesn’t seem like a great playbook for wooing Republican support.

The absence of red America has meant that Republican concerns are easily ignored, mocked, or translated by progressives who trust that they can get all the Republican input they need from a focus group (which can lead to reformers to talk in caricatures while telling one another that “this is what those guys want to hear”). I suspect that a movement with a vibrant right flank would have thought about its work differently, developed different proposals, talked about its agenda differently, and had more success with a broader array of allies.

In the end, I think this all matters a lot. As I observed a couple years ago in Letters to a Young Education Reformer:

Principled bipartisanship has a critical role to play in school reform. That's because schooling is a complex, personal enterprise in which it matters immensely whether parents in a given community trust reformers and how reform is handled. If improving schools was like fighting to abolish the death penalty—where victory is cut-and-dried—then bipartisanship would matter less. Advocates could just worry about winning votes or swaying judges. After all, if the death penalty is abolished, that's it. One side wins. Story over. But school reform is different. It's not enough for school reformers to win a policy fight; they need the kind of broad support that sustains change. The success of school reform rests on thousands of actions taken by educators, community leaders, and officials in schools, systems, and states."

In the end, while Hollywood may click along cheerfully in its blue bubble, I don’t think school reformers can say the same.

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