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Defending No Child Left Behind? Education Reform Hits the DNC

The education reform movement has often shielded itself from criticism by effectively employing the rhetoric of civil rights and equality.

"If Democratic education reformers really do believe they're fighting for civil rights, they should direct their blame not at teachers unions and economic justice activists, but at the devastating sight of an empty public school building up for sale to the highest bidder," writes Molly Knefel. (Photo: peoplesworld / Flickr)

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A coalition of education reformers gathered on Monday this week at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia for a “Camp Philos” event hosted by Education Reform Now, a sister organization of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). They discussed the typical topics of the education reform movement — accountability, school choice and so-called public charter schools — but their event also throbbed with the recognition that policies have been met with increasing resistance in communities across the country. Together they strategized about what the education reform agenda in the Democratic Party should be, going forward.

The city of Philadelphia is a particularly appropriate setting for such a meeting — it’s been the site of budget cuts to public education, school closures and charter expansion, and subsequently, a resurgence of progressive union organizing. I walked past a shuttered public school building, now up for sale, to get to Camp Philos. I work as an after-school teacher in two public schools in New York City, and to me, the sight of the desolate building was gut-wrenching. Huge old school buildings are often the beacons of a neighborhood, their playgrounds overrun with kids of all ages all summer. This school, in contrast, was deserted and ghostly.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Just two weeks prior, DFER President Shavar Jeffries had called the finalized education platform “hijacked” and an “unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy,” but now speakers were emphasizing the importance of uniting behind Hillary Clinton and working together with other stakeholders in education, including teachers unions.

Clinton had recently spoken to both the United Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said Ann O’Leary, senior policy advisor to Hillary for America, and had told them that “we really need to make sure to end these so-called education wars and put our ideology aside and look at how we problem-solve.” The group of education reformers at the DNC reluctantly cheered, and O’Leary added, “Yeah, you can clap for that!”

O’Leary called for unity between public school teachers — “who oftentimes are being asked to do so much more than we ever asked teachers to do in the past” — and reformers who “said it’s not good enough.” She argued that “great charters all over this country” are “laboratories” whose practices can be replicated at both charter schools and “traditional public schools.”

Surprisingly, O’Leary, along with Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, defended the merits of the widely reviled No Child Left Behind education law and Clinton’s early support of it. Both O’Leary and Coons painted the bill, which Clinton and Obama criticized during the 2008 presidential campaign, as a well-meaning bill that, despite its emphasis on testing, has had positive results for accountability. “For all of its problems, it exposed uncomfortable realities in America’s classrooms,” said Senator Coons. “It refused to lower our nation’s expectations in any school, and demanded that every child in America [get] the education that he or she deserves.”

“High expectations” and “accountability” are two of the fundamental premises of education reform, and they were both revisited throughout the day. One of the movement’s primary mechanisms for “accountability” has been to test students and use the results to evaluate their teachers and their school. Under No Child Left Behind, schools with consistently low test scores were subject to mass teacher firings or a takeover by private management, but the new Democratic platform explicitly opposes using test scores to close schools. It even supports parents who choose to opt out of standardized tests entirely. With a platform that marks such a break from previous accountability measures, speakers at Camp Philos wondered whether that shift in language represented a rhetorical and political loss for reformers.

Early in the day, panel moderator Jonathan Alter asked how Clinton differs from Obama on education policy. Ben LaBolt, former National Press Secretary for Obama for America, replied: “The Clinton campaign has said they’re going to have a seat at the table for everyone in the party who works in education. That means reformers will have a seat at the table, that means the unions will have a seat at the table.” The important thing, he quipped, is that “the unions don’t get all the seats at the table — just one of the seats.”

Later, LaBolt suggested that unions and reformers could work together where there’s common ground, suggesting unions “can be a little less focused on protecting the handful of members who have fallen down on the job.”

At the same time, panelists argued that many of the recent critiques of education reform policies, particularly the opt-out movement, come from conservatives, not progressives. New Jersey State Sen. Teresa Ruiz suggested that “education reform” is associated with enough negativity that it needs a rebranding toward “excellence” rather than “reform.” Both Ruiz and Massachusetts State Representative Alice Peisch suggested that education reform had a PR problem. To fix that, they argued, reformers have to emphasize that they’re not just about testing and closing schools, but about addressing educational inequality.

As the morning panel came to a close, Alter wondered whether reformers are ceding too much ground to the “social justice movement,” referring to education historian and reform critic Diane Ravitch. “If it becomes a social justice movement, doesn’t that in some ways let, for lack of a better word or expression, Diane Ravitch’s argument win?” asked Alter. “Which is, ‘don’t blame any of us, don’t focus on schools; if we don’t solve poverty, nothing is going to get better.’ Isn’t there a danger of falling away from the focus on at least some responsibility on schools?”

Ravitch and other critics of the education reform movement argue that high-stakes testing and school closures are actually mechanisms to punish poor students, not help them, and that blaming teachers and their unions for the so-called “achievement gap” is to hold educators accountable for factors far beyond their control, like poverty and structural racism.

During the lunch break, interestingly enough, a DFER staffer asked me if I was with Ravitch or the unions. I don’t believe Ravitch was at the gathering, so I have to assume that she meant “with” Ravitch in the ideological sense. I told her that I was attending the event as a member of the press. In addition to being an after-school teacher, I am a freelance journalist and regularly cover education. She suggested that I wasn’t actually with the press, but there just to tweet. Just for the record, I had not tweeted or retweeted anything critical that day, and I said again that I was with the press. She replied that it was totally OK that I was there, but that I should just “be honest.” The interaction betrayed the thinly veiled sentiment beneath the morning’s oft-repeated message of harmony with unions. The assumption was that if I attended the event in a critical capacity it must be because of a secret union affiliation. I am definitely not a union member, but I was still unsure of how welcome I was at the proverbial table.

The afternoon panel attempted to take on “socioeconomic conditions affecting children” outside the classroom, focusing on gun violence, substance abuse, segregation and the school-to-prison pipeline. It was a nod that there are, indeed, many variables in a child’s life that affect their academic performance, beyond their teacher. But there was no mention of the charter schools’ own role in perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline, or the recent national study of charter school data which showed 374 of them had a suspension rate of 25 percent or higher. Suspensions profoundly disrupt a child’s education, causing them to miss instruction time and fall behind academically. Moreover, students who are pushed out of the classroom are more likely to be referred to law enforcement, thus the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline.” It’s a fundamental problem in education and not one that charter schools are immune from. While there was an effort to discuss charters and segregation, there was no mention that twice as many Black charter school students attend “intensely segregated” schools than Black public school students. At one point, an audience member asked if integration should be forced, to which moderator Peter Cunningham responded:

Maybe the fight’s not worth it. It’s a good thing; we all think integration is good. But it’s been a long fight, we’ve had middling success. At the same time, we have lots and lots of schools filled with kids of one race, one background, that are doing great. It’s a good question.

At that point, Cunningham moved on and called on another audience member.

Education reformers often identify as fighters for the civil rights issue of our time, though ironically, New York, Massachusetts and Delaware have recently seen lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by charters. Monday was no exception. Many participants at the “Camp Philos” education reform event cheered at the sentiment that charter schools are public schools — a sentiment challenged by data which shows that charters tend to serve lower numbers of students with disabilities than public schools in the same neighborhoods, and “public” implies the imperative to serve all populations. The reform movement has often shielded itself from criticism by effectively employing the rhetoric of civil rights and equality. After all, who doesn’t want educational equality?

However, teachers, parents, students, union organizers and other public school advocates have had success in puncturing this rhetoric. They have consistently challenged the assertion that school closures and charter school expansions are unquestionably positive things for children and families. The success of this pushback has been most visible in the opt-out movement, where parents around the country have protested high-stakes testing by refusing to have their children take the tests. Anxiety around that pushback was palpable at Monday’s gathering. While the discussion of socioeconomic influences outside the classroom may have been incomplete, it was a marked change from a conversation that used to start and stop with teacher accountability.

I walked out of Camp Philos directly into Bernie Sanders supporters marching down Broad Street. So far, this week in Philadelphia has been an illustration of how, as strange and discouraging and politically wild as 2016 has been, protest movements have been able to impact mainstream political discourse from the left. It has also illustrated how extraordinarily polarized this country is, and how people can be upset about the same problems but point the blame in completely different directions.

If Democratic education reformers really do believe they’re fighting for civil rights, they should direct their blame not at teachers unions and economic justice activists, but at the devastating sight of an empty public school building up for sale to the highest bidder.

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