Is the grand left-right alliance for education reform now coming apart? Is it falling prey to the same polarizing forces that have gridlocked American politics and policymaking? Signs of such deterioration abound, as conservatives push to loosen the grip of governments and unions so as to maximize the freedom of families and schools to chart their own course, and as liberals redefine education reform into a “social justice” crusade, construe today’s problems in race and gender terms, and press government to do more to advance and protect selected subgroups—a trend that’s been welcomed and in fact quickened by the Obama administration’s eagerness to nationalize these endeavors and institute federal regulations that further them.

Ending the center-left/center-right coalition that has characterized the past quarter century of reform progress in primary-secondary education would be a big loss. That coalition has been the source of blended policy initiatives—and bipartisan policymaking—that has moved us toward:

  • A focus on school results more than inputs
  • 6,800 charter schools—and counting
  • Quality education choices—charters and beyond—for hundreds of thousands of families, and broad acceptance of the proposition that children should not be stuck in failing schools
  • Higher standards for all kids and serious attention to world-class academic achievement
  • “Accountability” for outcomes and the transparency that reveals how well those outcomes are being achieved, together with incentives and interventions designed to yield better outcomes
  • “No excuses” charter schools that transform the college prospects and life chances of hundreds of thousands of poor children
  • Judging teachers by their performance
  • Bold experiments in educational governance such as mayoral control of urban systems, “recovery districts,” and charter management organizations
  • Quality preschools for kids who need them
  • Scads of innovations in school design and educational technology

And this is to name just a few of the wins in K-12 education reform. The changes and accomplishments that have taken place at the state (and sometimes federal) level would not have happened without a measure of bipartisanship. Most state charter laws, for example, were products of across-the-aisle work. So were the “national goals” agreed to by the governors and George H. W. Bush at Charlottesville in 1999. So, in their different ways, were No Child Left Behind in 2001 and its successor, 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act. Other key moves have been facilitated by state and national reform groups that were able to join in pursuit of shared interests, and by foundations and wealthy individuals willing to support them.  

What looks like “consensus,” however, is more often “compromise,” the result of horse-trading and deal-making rather than basic agreement. It’s an important distinction, because most of the ed-reform progress that’s been made contains elements sought by people with divergent views who were able to support laws or programs that contained some—but by no means all—of what each sought. Although such patchwork policy assemblages are familiar elements of multi-party, separation-of-powers governments, it needs to be noted that they’re often messy and hard to implement, and that they sometimes lead to harmful consequences.

Let’s also stipulate that the views contributing to them genuinely differ. When turning to education reform, conservatives, by and large, are animated by their love of freedom, pluralism and choice, and by their conviction that America needs stronger academic results to enhance its national wellbeing and boost its economic competitiveness. They mostly trust individuals and markets to produce the best results in the most efficient ways and they mistrust monopolies, heavy-handed government regulations—and trade unions. They believe in upward mobility as something achieved primarily by individuals striving within a free, meritocratic society that doesn’t place barriers in front of people but also doesn’t do them special favors.

Liberals are moved by equality, by gap closing, by issues of race, gender, discrimination and civil rights, and by considerations of fairness—for groups, for individuals, for both children and educators. They care more about equal results than just equal opportunity, and are more concerned about lifting the achievement floor than raising the ceiling. They focus more on groups and group identities than on individuals, and they look to government and unions to protect and advance those who need it. The marketplace holds scant appeal. The profit motive is suspect, and competition counts for less than “level playing fields.” 

Yes, these are two different worldviews, alternative prisms through which to view education, and they mostly lead to different strategies for reforming it.

But that doesn’t mean conservatives and liberals cannot sometimes compromise. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001-2002 was a major example, proposed by George W. Bush but enacted with the cooperation of the late Ted Kennedy, among other Democrats. Unfortunately, it’s also an example of the perils of compromise, containing numerous provisions that proved unworkable, dysfunctional, even harmful, as well as divisive and unpopular with both educators and parents. (Regulatory waivers issued unilaterally by former Education Secretary Arne Duncan eased some of the friction but also brought new woes.)

The most recent major example at the federal level is the NCLB reauthorization known as the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, a sprawling, compromise measure that was wrought in bipartisan fashion by Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray and signed in December by President Obama. Kudos to them all. But let’s acknowledge that it doesn’t contain much true consensus about how best to improve American education, beyond a broad commitment to higher standards for all kids and annual assessments of performance in relation to those standards. It certainly embodies no true agreement about which levels of government should do what, about what to do about weak achievement and faltering schools, about “accountability,” or about “choice.” (Or about much else in this very long statute.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren and others did their best to bend it in a more liberal, “big government” direction, just as Senator Tim Scott and Alexander himself, for example, attempted to make it more conservative. They simply didn’t have the votes to prevail. But the final measure contains plenty of compromises. While it gives states greater control of their school accountability systems, it also requires them to report much more information to Washington about what they’re doing. While conservatives managed to ease other regulatory burdens, they failed to include a voucher-like option for states to deploy their federal dollars. While liberals got some “guardrails” around state accountability systems, they failed to get a federal mandate on equalizing school funding—though Obama education secretary John King is now doing his utmost to devise one via executive branch regulations.  

It’s still possible at a fairly high level of abstraction to join moderate liberals and moderate conservatives around some key principles of education reform, much as the state-based reform groups joined under the loose umbrella of Policy Innovators in Education in their statement of “commitments.” But those principles need to be pretty abstract to elicit support from both sides, as in “effective educators make a difference,” “kids need champions,” and “families need options.” Get an inch or two below the surface of such stirring commitments and there’s surprisingly little agreement between left and right.

Who should be kids’ champions? Their own families? The state? The federal Office for Civil Rights? A guidance counselor? Clergyman? Advocacy groups such as Education Trust? A high school history teacher?

What sorts of options do families need? Choices among schools? Public and private? Among teachers? Courses? Pathways through life? Income sufficient to live where they want to?

What’s an effective educator? How is that best determined and who’s to say? Should effective educators get paid more? What happens to those who are ineffective? Which kinds teach which kids—and who decides that?

In point of fact, we’ve had many disagreements of late, from Common Core to teacher evaluations, from the stacked (or not) agenda at the NewSchools shindig to whether the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (progenitor of both NCLB and ESSA) was or wasn’t a civil rights law. Should voucher-receiving private schools be subject to heavier regulation or is the threat of regulation the reason top private schools won’t take vouchers? Should teachers be judged by the academic value they do or don’t add to their students? And should that be decided at the federal, state, or local level? What about social-emotional intelligence? Who gets to use which school bathroom and is that any of Washington’s business? How about school discipline and the use of “disparate impact” gauges to determine whether discrimination is occurring? What about the rights (if any) of studious, well behaved kids whose classrooms are being disrupted by peers who may already have entered the “school to prison pipeline”?

Exacerbating the disagreements on those questions is the self-righteousness that seems to have swamped this field in recent years. Education has never been a mirth-filled realm, but when I first got into it a lot of participants could still smile, occasionally giggle, even tell the odd joke—and the chuckles were, often as not, bipartisan. Today, however, practically nobody seems to have a sense of humor, at least not about anything bearing on ed reform. Is it because of our unfunny national politics? Because social media and 24/7 news mean that even a short chortle can be turned by one’s foes into evidence that one is making light of something? I’m not sure about the cause, but I can attest that it’s hard to make common cause with people who can never share a spoof or jest.  

The one education reform that appears still to have a fair degree of liberal-conservative support, if not necessarily consensus, is charter schooling. There, liberals see better opportunities for poor and minority kids to get to college without exiting the “public education” corral. Conservatives look at charters and see pluralism and choice at work in ways that loosen the state and union monopolies. Neither side is wholly satisfied: liberals complain that not every needy kid has equal access to charter options and that not every charter is good at meeting every kid’s needs, while conservatives lament that the hand of government still weighs upon these schools and the marketplace is constrained in multiple ways. As yet, however, it’s still possible to enact and amend charter laws in many places with bipartisan support.

I worry, though, that even in the charter realm the grounds for compromise are turning to dust. If you see education reform as a social justice or civil rights crusade, you will care mightily about whether every charter is educating its share of kids with disabilities and whether enough “people of color” are running these schools. You’ll fret about people making money from charters or schools suspending too many minority children. Much as you want every kid to get to college, you’ll have palpitations about whether the “no excuses” schools are too paternalistic and insensitive to cultural differences. And you’ll fret that the regulatory “playing field” is tipped to favor charter over district schools.

If, on the other hand, you see ed reform as a path to boosting academic achievement and giving families choices, you will care mightily about whether charters have enough freedom to be truly different and whether the ablest people are running them, regardless of skin color or profit motive. You will understand that boosting poor kids up the ladder to and beyond college means giving them schools with a “middle class” culture as well as heavy doses of basic skills and fundamental knowledge. Yet you’ll want chartering to go beyond the path to college—for it also to pay attention to gifted students, job readiness, STEM subjects, and more. Your version of a “tipped” playing field is that charters don’t get nearly as much money per student as do neighboring district schools.

Major disputes have arisen among ed reformers in recent months as to whether charters with empty seats must be required by government to “back fill,” i.e. to admit, more kids mid-year even if those children are far behind the classes they’d be joining. Kindred arguments have erupted over whether the most successful “no excuses” charters, such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in New York City, deter unpromising or troubled students from entering and suspend others whose test scores might tarnish the schools’ reputations.

There’s reason, alas, to suspect that the center isn’t holding, even among those who have favored charter schools, and certainly among those who have differing views on a host of other items that have been prominent on the reform agenda.

Perhaps this was inevitable, considering what’s been happening in the wider worlds of politics and policy. I don’t know whether it’s fixable, or how much effort either side is prepared to expend trying to reconstruct a centrist ed reform movement. (I worry that each side would rather blame the other for today’s fissiparous tendencies.) I do know, however, that the price of disintegration in education reform will be heavy. We don’t need to worry overmuch about adult reformers paying that price, but we should care quite a lot about what it will exact from the millions of kids who deserve better, and from a society whose future hinges more on how well those kids are educated than on who occupies the Oval Office on January 20, 2017.   

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