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Education Funding Opinion

Wisconsin, DFER, and the Return of Combative Conservatism

By Rick Hess — March 02, 2011 4 min read
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Much of the turmoil roiling the national edu-debate in the wake of Wisconsin can be understood as the shocked, disheartened realization by “ed-reform” Democrats that principled, small-government conservatism has regained its footing in the Republican Party. For the past decade, Republican edu-thought was dominated by the Bush administration’s “big government” conservatism, with its affinity for federally-mandated testing, new spending, and intrusive interventions in “failing” schools.

This made it remarkably easy for the Bush administration to make common cause with school reform Democrats and progressive groups like The Education Trust, even as conservatives had little of substance to say when it came to challenging teachers unions, school spending, or federal overreach and regulation. The result: education was celebrated by Washington tastemakers as a rare case of “healthy” bipartisanship. In edu-world, what’s been most intriguing about the Tea Party movement and the resurgence of principled small-government conservatism, perhaps for the first time since the mid-1990s, is that it’s swept away the Bush-era conventions like so much driftwood.

The new, combative conservatism is bemoaned as mean-spirited by pundits and CNN anchors who wonder why everyone can’t just sit down and hug it out. Meanwhile, it’s proving a late Christmas gift for Democratic leaders who suddenly enjoy more compliant unions without having had to play the heavy. The result: Democratic governors like Martin O’Malley in Maryland and John Hickenlooper in Colorado are happy, at least for the moment, because Republican efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana make their proposed cuts a whole lot more attractive. And California Governor Jerry Brown is downright gleeful, as he’s now been able to pin on the public employee unions the job of getting voters to approve a referendum that’ll generate another $12.5 billion in taxes to help forestall unpleasant cuts.

Over at Democrats for Education Reform, my friends are crying crocodile tears about “overreaching” by uncouth Republican governors even as they see a priceless opportunity to steal a page from the old Clinton playbook and triangulate like crazy. That’s why, just last week, DFER prez Joe Williams penned a public letter that touched all the bases: decrying wild-eyed Republicans, defending unions, and positioning DFER as the voice of wisdom and pragmatism.

Joe argued, “How do we [at DFER] keep the political focus on providing a quality education for all students at a time when some Republican leaders appear to be primarily salivating at the chance to whack a significant political opponent?” He took pains to point out that, unlike the evil Republicans, “We [at DFER] believe that teacher unions have a crucial voice that should be heard in education debates.” In fact, “We’re kind of creeped-out by some of what we are seeing and hearing these days in the Heartland.” He gave the teachers union credit for empty rhetoric, noting, “In recent weeks, we watched the Wisconsin Education Association Council come out strongly in support of overhauling teacher evaluation systems...We were as skeptical as everyone else about WEAC’s sincerity, but the game was at least on.” In short, “We [at DFER] are profoundly worried that this kind of overreach will set education reform back years.”

So much for the vaunted bipartisanship of ed reform. Turns out that DFER-types are all for bipartisanship on things like teacher evaluation and pay, so long as Republicans support new spending, don’t mess with the unions, and take care to respect progressive priorities. Indeed, Joe bemoans the Wisconsin dispute as a distraction from talk about teacher evaluation and school improvement. I couldn’t disagree more. To quote Jerry Maguire‘s immortal Rod Tidwell, “That’s the difference between us. You think we’re fighting, and I think we’re finally talking.”

It’s not that Joe’s take is unreasonable. It’s a sensible stance for progressives interested in both school reform and boosting Democratic electoral prospects. But what’s peculiar is the hand-wringing befuddlement that small-government conservatives might see things differently. The public debate in the past decade has been impoverished by the dearth of tough-minded conservatives willing to talk bluntly about reforming the public sector more broadly. It’s healthy to have those folks back in the mix, and unfortunate that DFER is so eager to disparage them for political convenience rather than seek common ground when it comes to school reform.

After all, if DFER is sincere about the need to overhaul teacher evaluation, pay, and work rules--especially given how halting has been progress on this count over time--you think they would see value in shrinking the scope of collective bargaining and welcome some hard-charging new allies.

The big short-term winner in all this may be the DFER-types, who get to highlight their pragmatism and progressive cuddliness. The bigger long-term winner, though, is the American people--who get to trade the stale, banal orthodoxies of the Bush years for a more bracing debate about how to organize the public sector in the 21st century. And it’s hard to think of a debate more relevant to reforming our nation’s publicly governed, funded, and operated schools.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.