Middle-of-the-Road Education Politics Meets the End of the Road

Parsing education politics has always been a challenge. On all sides, you can find liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, side by side, in agreement on most things. In the past, the politics of education reform was neither red nor blue. Now, in 2020, that’s changing dramatically—and perhaps for the better. 

At least that’s what policy poohbahs like Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute would have us think.

Was there ever an apolitical middle ground in education politics?

Hess, in a recent Education Week column, writes about the “new politics of education” where the Democratic primary shows that something different is in the air and the “old” politics of education doesn’t entirely hold up.

But is Hess right? Was there ever an apolitical middle ground in education politics? 

Let’s say the “old” politics of education reform kicked off with A Nation At Risk, produced under President Reagan to sell the notion that U.S. public schools were in Terrible Trouble and that Something Must Be Done. Exactly what that “something” should be became the subject of much debate. Unfortunately, they skipped over the question of just how accurate the Terrible, Terrible Trouble part was. 

Of course, this faulty premise led to flawed solutions: school choice, uniform and universal standards, and accountability as part of a program to fill schools with awesome teachers while purging the lousy ones.

As Diane Ravitch highlights in her new book Slaying Goliath, these were largely conservative reforms, but proponents were successful in convincing Democrats to join in and make it a bipartisan movement. And, as Steve Suitts argues in his forthcoming book, Overturning Brown, the pro-reform camp used many of the same political and rhetorical strategies that had been deployed in the fight to maintain segregation. 

Yet, the neoliberal notion of injecting public education with private business-led entrepreneurial solutions fit particularly well with the Clinton Third Way ideas and with the Obama Administration, so education reform had two-party legs.


Perhaps this carefully molded sense of agreement is why education reformers used to say that politics had no place in education.

In his column, Hess argues that this alliance allowed the GOP look committed to community and equity issues, while they let Dems “show their independence from the teachers’ union.” I’m not so sure about either of those claims. It’s true that the GOP beat up unions for harboring terrible teachers even as they extended their business-friendly brand into the untapped billion-dollar education sector. Meanwhile, the teachers’ unions had to be forcibly dragged away from their support of Democratic politicians like Arne Duncan and Democratic proposals like Common Core by rank and file members. 

Perhaps this carefully molded sense of agreement is why education reformers used to say that politics had no place in education, even as their goals and policies were furthered by blatant politicking.

Common Core, school choice policies, and the attack on the teaching profession were all empowered by political operatives using political tools. The idea that education reform was a chummy bipartisan world of non-political activity was a beloved illusion, convenient for silencing voices of dissent—but that is all that it was. 

This thirty-year alliance has been showing signs of wear and tear for a decade. Republicans badly miscalculated the effects of the Common Core. Jeb! Bush may have been a low-energy candidate, but it was arguably his support for Common Core that sucked the heart right out of his campaign. An attack from the right was not the only assault on the Common Core, but it was the one conservative education reformers were not ready for.

Despite these faultlines, the bipartisan education entente may have carried on, if not for Donald Trump. When Obama was President, Dems had all the cover they needed to safely stand by Betsy DeVos and praise her reform work. But once Trump was in office, supporting DeVos was sure to draw fire. There likely never was a middle ground for education reform; after Trump, even the illusion of such a thing is now gone.


Part of the blame is on voters, who have never cared as much about education as they should. Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week highlights this problem. As he points out, a new Gallup poll shows that 43 percent of Democrats consider education the “most important electoral issue” (GOP 23 percent, Independent 33 percent). However, when a FiveThirtyEight poll asked voters to  rank issues rather than labeling them important or not, education came in tenth out of ten, coming in two places behind—not kidding—“something else.”

In other words, while Hess regrets that “high-profile education positions are being crafted with an eye not to the persuadable middle, but to the party’s base,” I’m not sure if the middle was ever persuadable so much as comfortable and not that motivated by education issues of any sort. For that matter, I’m not sure the party bases have feelings strong enough to cut through the noise of “something else.”

For the first time in thirty years, there’s a real chance of electing a President who’s not an unrestrained supporter of reform. Now that would be a “new politics of education.” 

Still, the politics have changed. Reformers have spent recent years discussing and arguing about how to maintain the alliance between free market crusaders and social justice advocates. As Democratic candidates ramp up their skepticism of charter schools, charter advocates have been whipping up polls to sell the notion that “real Democrats” support charter schools. 

There are signs that, if progressives continue to separate themselves from education reform, its advocates might just have to play a little rougher.

Brightbeam, for example, is a new umbrella organization that includes Education Post, an organization run with money from the usual high rollers (Broad, Bloomberg, Walton, Jobs, Gates, etc). The first big project from Brightbeam is a report that argues that progressive cities are doing a far worse job with education than their conservative counterparts. 

But Hess seems correct to think the Democratic primary could change reform’s political landscape.

If a reformer like Bloomberg wins the nomination, the charter school movement may get a second wind. The middle tier candidates, like Pete Buttigieg,  show no strong interest in supporting public schools over charters, and would likely leave the reform industry undisturbed. 

But a Warren, Sanders, or even Klobuchar candidacy would put school choice in the hot seat. For the first time in thirty years, there’s a real chance of electing a President who’s not an unrestrained supporter of reform. Now that would be a “new politics of education.” 

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