By Jason Bedrick
Have you ever watched two friends engaged in a heated debate who are basically saying the same thing but don’t seem to realize it? That’s how I felt reading a recent post by my colleague, Jennifer Wagner, in which she addresses the arguments made by Jay P. Greene and Rick Hess at National Review about the state of ed reform today. They appear to be in a state of vigorous agreement.
Jen takes Jay and Rick to task for supposedly blaming “unlikely allies” on the left for the failures of ed reform to move the needle (see, for example, the recent dismal NAEP scores) and failing to pursue a reform in a bipartisan way. She then details things the ed reform movement has done that are more likely culprits, particularly around messaging.
The thing is, Jay and Rick were also arguing for more bipartisanship, and they each have long track records of self-reflective criticism for the ed reform movement, including regarding its goals and message.
After noting that there are “many culprits” for the “decade of stalled progress,” Jay and Rick opened their piece by explaining why bipartisanship is so essential to being effective:
The U.S. is distinctive for its sprawling, decentralized system of schools, which are governed in large part by 50 legislatures and more than 14,000 democratically controlled school districts.
This means that, for better or worse, educational improvement is always a political project. The failure to improve schooling is thus, in part, inevitably a political failure. After all, improving schools nationwide requires enacting reforms across an array of contexts, and then executing, supporting, and sustaining those reforms in a patchwork of red and blue communities. This Tocquevillian challenge can be answered only with a broad, bipartisan coalition.
That’s a far cry from (as Jen characterized their argument) telling left-wing school choice advocates to “get out of the way.”
After emphasizing the need for bipartisanship — a goal Jen shares — Jay and Rick argue that one of the reasons the ed reform movement has stalled is that it is no longer as bipartisan as it used to be. “We suspect,” they write, “that the dismal results recorded by the NAEP are partially due to a once-bipartisan school-reform community’s hard turn to the left.”
To support this contention, they marshal hard data:
Today, education-reform organizations and the foundations that fund them are overwhelmingly populated by Democrats. Earlier this year, we analyzed the campaign contributions of the employees at a wide swath of education-reform organizations, including Teach For America and major charter-school operators. More than 90 percent of the thousands of contributions we studied, made over many years, flowed to Democrats. It appears that school reformers today are more uniformly partisan than even the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union — indeed, the largest union of any kind — in the United States.
This is a considerable shift from two decades ago, when the reform community tilted heavily to the right. But their argument is not that the Right is right and Left is wrong, it’s that the movement can’t be effective if it’s tilted too much in either direction. Noting that it’s “hard to pin down precisely what changed,” they suspect that both sides bear part of the blame: “it’s partly a tale of Republicans walking away from school reform and partly one of an emboldened Left driving Republicans out of the movement by prioritizing identity politics and heavy regulation.”
One reason EdChoice is such an effective advocate for school choice is because we actually have an ideologically diverse team. What Rick and Jay are lamenting is that so many other ed reform organizations now have ideologically uniform teams. Operating in an ideological bubble makes it much harder to effectively communicate with legislators and policymakers of a different ideological bent, and can distract ed reform efforts with all sorts of non-education projects (especially ones that are polarizing and turn off potential conservative allies, like the ones Rick and Jay identified).
Jen doesn’t address these points. Instead, she points to other likely culprits for the stall.
For example, Jen notes that “the economic talking points we started with — aimed squarely at conservative, free market types — didn’t work for other audiences.” There’s much truth here, though much of the problem relates to ed reform’s technocratic tendencies, not its free-market ones. (E.g., parents don’t care nearly as much about test scores as the average academic or think tank wonk.) Of course, Jay and Rick have been banging these drums for a while. See, for example, Jay’s 2017 blog post “If You Mostly Care About Test Scores, Private School Choice Is Not For You,” or Rick’s post last week, “How to Make the Case for School Choice,” in which he advises advocates to emphasize that school choice is “a powerful opportunity to strengthen the human connection between student and school, boost the power of teachers to improve their practice, and make it more possible to design schools that can serve all of our nation’s students.” Rick’s advice is nearly exactly what Jen advised in her post about being “pro-teacher,” focusing on “finding the right fit,” and emphasizing “opportunity” over “competition.”
Another culprit Jen points to is that the reform movement “tied [teacher] pay to high-stakes tests and dismissed them as one large bloc of rabble-rousers instead of listening to their individual concerns.” Although Jay advocated for merit pay more than a decade ago, he has spent much of the decade critiquing technocratic pretentions while Rick has been calling on conservatives to listen to the “legitimate gripes” of teachers about pay.
A third culprit Jen identifies is reformers’ penchant for “telling families their schools were terrible when they had no other options.” Yet again, Rick recently made exactly the same point, warning reformers that “Attacks on district schools anger teachers (who feel criticized) and plenty of parents (who tend to like their local schools), and can leave choice proponents looking ideological and out of touch.”
We may be here for different reasons, but we’re here because we understand — as do a majority of voters on both sides of the aisle — that providing educational opportunity for all families is imperative and urgent.
I wholeheartedly agree. As I read them, so do Rick and Jay.
Jason is EdChoice’s Director of Policy. You can read more about him here.