Clinton Looks to Move Democrats Away from ‘Education Wars’

In an event that could be called a love fest, Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton laid out her education priorities in a rollicking speech at the annual assembly of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union. Clinton profusely thanked teachers for doing the difficult job of educating the nation’s children, and the 7,500 educators in attendance responded with cascading chants of “Hillary, Hillary.”

There was, however, one moment of discord.

“When schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working,” said Clinton to loud boos over the mention of charter schools, which are publicly-funded, independently run public schools that often employ non-unionized teachers.

Clinton paused and continued: “We don’t have time for these education wars.”

In most policy areas the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign want to be seen as the inheritor of the popular sitting president’s legacy, but perhaps no area has divided the party more than K-12 education. While the Clinton campaign has focused on issues that unite the party—such as expanding access to pre-kindergarten programs, raising teacher pay and increasing school funding— a recent fight over the party’s platform, a document that lays out the party’s policy goals, underscores how difficult ending the party’s internal education wars could be.

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At a July meeting in Orlando, Florida to write the party’s platform, delegates appointed by Clinton’s main rival in the primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, pushed through a slew of amendments to the original draft, which together represent a sharp turn away from the policies of the Obama administration which used federal funding to push states to raise academic standards and to tie test scores to teacher evaluations. The new language supports the rights of parents to opt their children out of standardized tests, demand more oversight of charters and oppose evaluating teachers using their students’ standardized test scores.

“We moved the debate and raised some issues that the party had ignored,” said Chuck Pascal, a Sanders delegate, former school board member and former mayor from Leechburg, Pennsylvania. “We introduced amendments that made the platform more reflective of the positions of rank-and-file Democrats in the field, educators and activists.”

“We needed to make clear that the party is not in lockstep behind what had become orthodoxy for a while, more charters and more testing and all of these things that have weakened public education,” added Pascal.

But the reformers who shifted the party away from its traditional stances, groups like Democrats for Education Reform, individual educators like Louisiana superintendent John White and President Obama himself, are still a potentially powerful force in the party, even if the platform, a non-binding proposal, includes rebuttals of their ideas.

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For the last 15 years, many teachers have felt like they’ve consistently been losing the education policy wars even with a Democrat in the White House. The Obama administration embraced much of the testing and accountability policies of the George W. Bush-No Child Left Behind era. Teachers complained that they were being punished for factors beyond their control like poverty and that the federal government’s support for charter schools undermined their unions and their job security. Many were further alienated by the expanding practice of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and the adoption of the new rigorous standards known as Common Core, all policies propelled by the Obama administration.

Clinton, who has historically been a supporter of both teachers unions and charter schools and testing, is trying to walk the line between the two factions. Teachers unions, who backed her early on in her drawn-out primary fight against Sanders, want a near complete reversal in tone and policies from the Obama administration.

However, education reformers, who are supportive of Obama’s policies, will still have sway with Clinton, though, and often note the civil rights roots of school accountability.

The platform changes to the Democratic platform left many of them livid.

“What they did in Orlando is clearly at odds with the balanced position Clinton has staked out over the course of the campaign,” said Charles Barone, the director of policy at Democrats for Education Reform. “She was trying to find common ground and they threw a temper tantrum, saying we want everything our way.”

Pascal says the amendments against testing passed without opposition, though the delegates negotiated the language around charter schools.

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Already, the passage of a new federal education law last year may have made it easier for Clinton to move beyond the central fights within the party.

“We needed to make clear that the party is not in lockstep behind what had become orthodoxy for a while, more charters and more testing and all of these things that have weakened public education.” — Chuck Pascal, a Sanders delegate on the party’s platform writing committee and a former school board member

The Obama administration worked with the Republican-controlled Congress to update the widely loathed No Child Left Behind Act, replacing it with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). A bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats denounced the law’s emphasis on testing in particular. ESSA will continue to require students to test students annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. However, decisions about how those scores will be used are now largely left to the states, moving the battles over accountability to state capitols.

Members of the Obama administration have said they are working feverishly to complete the regulations that will spell out the details of how states must comply with the new law, before a new administration comes in.

With ESSA moving many of the most divisive battles of the education wars to the states, Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education at New America, thinks that an education department in Hillary Clinton’s administration would push forward policies that most liberals agree on, namely, expanding access to pre-kindergarten as well as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes for low-income students and reducing suspension and expulsion rates.

Peter Cunningham, the executive director of Education Post, a nonprofit communications firm focused on improving public education, and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, thinks that Clinton can ultimately unite the party by focusing on what both factions agree on.

“We all support higher funding, expanding early learning options, better pay for teachers,” said Cunningham. “I think she should be arguing that there are a lot of people on the other side who just want to defund education. The grand bargain with Republicans has always been accountability for more resources.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.