California’s two candidates for state superintendent this past November didn’t agree on much when it came to education. Tom Torlakson, a former teacher, wanted to make school funding more equitable and support teachers. Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive, wanted to increase the number of charter schools and tie teacher evaluations to test scores. Torlakson’s campaign was primarily bankrolled by teachers unions. Tuck’s was funded by out-of-state benefactors like Michael Bloomberg and Alice Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. These outside parties spent a combined $25 million—three times the amount spent on California’s gubernatorial race—filling the airwaves with attack ads. The race had all the hallmarks of the divisive, partisan competitions that were so common in the 2014 midterms. Except for one thing: Torlakson and Tuck are both Democrats.

The California state superintendent election exemplified a nascent divide among Democrats over education that is poised to play a significant role in the Democratic outlook in 2016 and beyond. Although much has been made of the heated debate between left-wing populists and moderate centrists in the party over economic policy, this educational divide, which pits the Obama administration against grassroots Democratic advocates and self-proclaimed education “reformers” against teachers unions, has been largely overlooked. With Congress set to rewrite No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative, the increasingly urgent debate over how to address the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in schools is becoming a wedge issue for Democrats.

President Obama's appointment of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proved divisive within the Democratic Party.

President Obama’s appointment of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proved divisive within the Democratic Party.

Origins of the Divide

The divisions in the Democratic Party over education policy can be traced back to the late 1980s, when Polly Williams, a black Democrat representing urban Milwaukee in the Wisconsin State Assembly, sponsored legislation creating a school voucher program that allowed low-income Milwaukee students to use state funding to attend private schools. Williams’s embrace of what was originally a conservative idea prompted many other Democrats, concerned with the state of urban public schools, to follow suit.

This was significant, according to Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, because it created a rift between two key Democratic constituencies: urban blacks, who wanted better public schools, and teachers unions, who opposed charter schools and school vouchers. “African-Americans, of course, are a very important constituency in the Democratic Party, and yet so are teachers unions,” Loveless told the HPR. “In that particular case, those two important constituencies were diametrically opposed.”

The true emergence of education as a wedge issue for Democrats came in the 2000s, with the entrance of Wall Street and Silicon Valley billionaires into the education policy debate. Many of them saw education as a business in need of innovation and competition, and they began giving large sums of money to organizations and Democratic candidates that supported charter schools. Some of these donors, like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, had historically given to Democrats, but many were much more conservative, according to Robin Hiller, the executive director of The Network for Public Education, an education advocacy organization.

Hiller explained to the HPR that some of the policies the reform candidates support, like closing schools in low-income areas, may even seem to go against to Democratic principles. “The only thing that makes sense is that there are people giving to candidates in the Democratic Party … that support privatization, that support union-busting, and the attacks on teachers. And so, if you’re getting all your money from those people, you have to go along with what they say.” Loveless disagreed, arguing that the Democratic reformers aren’t beholden to whims of their donors, but are “acting out of moral outrage, and out of what are traditional impulses in the Democratic party, so they don’t see themselves as privatizers.” However, even if these candidates are acting on principle, they still depend on wealthy donors who expect them to pursue specific policies in return for their support.

Loveless said the emergence of these hedge fund billionaires from both sides of the aisle in educational policy prompted a backlash from teachers, who felt “blamed for the failures of urban education.” Left-wing education activists were outraged that wealthy donors who were newcomers to education policy were pushing ideas that were anathema to their policy priorities. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Susan Johnson told the HPR, “The union reformers, who actually have been at work doing a lot of educational change in some places in very far-reaching ways for the last 15 or 20 years, were very angry that people who had really very little experience in education and few credentials and little training were starting to say, ‘Here are the answers for education.’”

President Versus Party

The Obama administration has used federal funding as an incentive for states to adopt policies, such as encouraging the growth of charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores, that are championed by the new reformers but opposed by public education activists. In urban centers like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark, strong grassroots movements, consisting primarily of Democratic constituencies, have emerged to oppose these policies, according to Jeff Bryant, a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group. “These were supposed to be the communities that were going to be helped in the reform movement, and yet these are the communities where you’re seeing the most vociferous opposition,” Bryant said in an interview with the HPR. “And it’s coming from advocacy groups that are on the ground there.”

According to Johnson, many public education activists were excited when Obama took office. But the President’s appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education over Linda Darling-Hammond, whom many of these activists preferred, and the subsequent policies that Duncan’s Department of Education implemented quickly alienated teachers unions and their allies. “The traditional side of the Democratic Party in education was sort of sidestepped,” Johnson said. Many of Obama’s education policies, especially those tying standardized test scores to teacher evaluations, were very similar to those of his predecessor. “A lot of them had come from George Bush, and people said that [Obama’s] Race To The Top was [Bush’s] No Child Left Behind on steroids,” Hiller explained.

However, Obama’s policies are undoubtedly distinct from those of right-wing education reformers. “While the … Obama-Duncan group is staking out a position that’s different from what the teachers unions would like them to, it’s also a position that’s different from some of the reformers further on the right,” Teachers College, Columbia University professor Jeffrey Henig told the HPR. Indeed, the Department of Education has shifted its rhetoric this past year to emphasize that its policy objectives aren’t all that different from those of the traditional left-wing education activists. For example, in an October op-ed for The Washington Post, Duncan acknowledged a major complaint lodged by teachers and parents, writing that “tests—and preparation for them—dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress.”

Still, Obama and Duncan have a ways to go before they win back the favor of teachers unions and other public education activists. At their annual convention this past summer, the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, called on Duncan to resign, thrusting the divide between the teachers union wing of the Democratic Party and the Obama administration into the national spotlight. Indeed, in attempting to bridge the divide between teacher unions and reformers, the Obama administration seems to have alienated both sides. Andy Rotherham, a co-founder of the education advocacy group Bellwether Education, said of Obama and Duncan, “They have made nobody happy … Reformers are as frustrated with them as reform critics are.”

Teachers Unions: Obstructionists or Scapegoats?

The Chicago Teachers Union on strike in 2012 to protest funding levels and corporate reform.

The Chicago Teachers Union launched a massive strike in 2012 to oppose corporate reform and increase education funding.

The Democratic reformers often accuse teachers unions of digging in their heels and refusing to accept that the educational issues public schools face require that significant changes be made. “Some Democrats have, over time, come to see the union as overly rigid in defending some of the elements of the current education system, and, as a result, begun to peel away,” Henig said. And they’re not alone; according to a poll by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy, 43 percent of Americans see teachers unions as a negative influence on public schools, up from 31 percent in 2009.

Back at Brookings, Loveless argued that teachers unions had become too extreme. He pointed to teachers unions in New York that refused to back the most recent reelection campaign for Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, who championed charter schools and supported tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores. “They’re attacking liberal Democrats who are on the left of the nation’s mainstream politics anyway, and they’re moving even farther to the left of them,” Loveless said.

But other Democrats see teachers unions as scapegoats for deeper issues in education, like student poverty. Because teachers unions are so visible, they are easy to blame for educational issues that might actually be more structural, and the unions are firing back. In an interview with the HPR, Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, said that the reformers want to “make it easy to hire anybody who wants to be a teacher and isn’t trained, … [and] make it really easy to fire teachers.” Randi Weingarten, the president of another teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, agreed, telling the HPR, “They want to make [teachers] a temporary workforce, and so when they focus on test scores as opposed to really helping [students] grow, they want to fire their way to a teaching force.”

This divide between Democrats who support teachers unions and those who oppose them could play a significant role in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, since teachers unions still represent a sizeable Democratic constituency. But Henig argues that it is very unlikely for the teachers unions to support a Republican candidate even if the Democratic nominee isn’t to their liking: “Whoever is the Democratic candidate for president is going to have the unions’ support, because they’re not going to cross over to the other side, and they’re not going to sit on their hands. There’s too much at stake.” Still, teachers unions will be sure to flex as much electoral muscle as possible to nominate a pro-teacher candidate.

The Court Case that Deepened the Divide

In California, where Tuck and Torlakson fought for the state superintendent’s seat, a recent lawsuit reignited the debate among Democrats over education. It had all the hallmarks of the divide: a wealthy reformer in Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, who brought the lawsuit through his nonprofit organization, Students Matter; a contentious issue for Democrats in teacher tenure, which Welch and fellow reformers aimed to get rid of; and a divide between teachers unions defending the state’s tenure laws and reform-oriented Democrats lining up behind Welch to oppose them.

In the case, Vergara v. California, the judge sided with Students Matter, finding that the state’s tenure laws violated the civil rights of poor and minority students by saddling them with ineffective teachers. The ruling effectively struck down job protections for teachers in the state. Many Democrats, including Duncan and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), praised the result, while the California teachers unions strongly opposed it. The California Teachers Association, one of these teachers unions, even argued that the lawsuit was “manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on our schools.”

While Democratic education reformers won the battle in the Vergara case, they lost in the state superintendent race; Tom Torlakson, the candidate supported by California’s teachers unions, was sworn in on January 5. But with Vergara-style lawsuits emerging in other states and the rise of test-based accountability around the country, teachers unions and public education activists continue to face an uphill battle against their deep-pocketed fellow Democrats. As 2016 looms larger, this internal division could have serious consequences for Democratic prospects and national education policy.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Education, Wikimedia, Flickr/Shutter Stutter

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