The Democrats' great education schism

Opinion by Richard Whitmire in the USAToday

10/08/15

The party of Hillary Clinton must decide: Support teachers' unions or fight for low-income, minority children

It would be easy to dismiss the thousands of students, parents and educators marching across the Brooklyn Bridge Wednesday decked out in red “I fight to end inequality” T-shirts as bit players in a New York squabble over charter school funding.

It’s way more than that.

What you’re witnessing are yet more signs that the Democratic Party is headed toward a serious fissure over education issues, one that will pit the haves against the have-nots. That’s never good.

The divide pits traditional liberals (think New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo) versus progressives (think New York Mayor Bill de Blasio). The odd thing is that some Democrats don’t seem to see this one coming.

Hey, it’s just boring old education stuff. How bad can it be? Real bad, as in serious conflicts erupting between white suburbanite parents and urban parents.

Another signal of this likely eruption came last week, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced both his resignation and his replacement: John King, a charter school co-founder who went on to be New York state’s education chief. There, he pursued test-focused reforms designed to root out ineffective teachers.

The opposition to the reforms in New York was intense. The unions hated King’s reforms and superintendents didn’t want to deal with additional accountability. Most telling: both the unions and teachers pulled middle-class white families into their “opt-out” movement, where parents refused to let their children take state tests.

The fact that Duncan and President Obama picked King shows just how bitter this has become. Obama doesn’t care about angering the unions further, nor superintendents, nor the suburban parents. The message: game on.

For a moment, set aside the question of who’s right and wrong in the testing debate. What really mattered in upstate New York and Long Island was that middle-income parents started to declare their perceived educational self-interests. Union rhetoric convinced these parents that state tests, designed mostly to enforce accountability in high-poverty schools, would never help their children. So they voted with their feet by keeping their kids from taking tests.

POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media

The same suburban/urban split may be playing out with charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. Charters are yet another education innovation that often do little or nothing for upper-income suburban parents — and could easily be seen as threatening to their high-performing schools located just a few miles away.

On the other end of that spectrum, look at the faces of the kids and their parents marching across the bridge Wednesday: These marchers are not from upper-income Scarsdale and yet they want better school options.

Now this question: If a Republican presidential candidate has a position encouraging more charter schools in neighborhoods such as Harlem and the South Bronx, and the Democratic candidate takes a progressive stance against charters, which way will those parents vote?

Don’t think that kind of voter revolt could happen within the Democratic Party? It’s already happening in some places. Take Los Angeles, where charter co-founder Ref Rodriquez recently won a seat on the L.A. Unified board in what had to be the priciest and most bitter school board race in history.

In that race, the affluent white neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz went for Rodriguez’s union-blessed opponent, the incumbent, while the Latino neighborhoods of the southeast cities, like Huntington Park and Bell, won the race for Rodriguez.

It was mostly about charter schools: Upper-income whites likely thought charter schools that mostly benefited Latinos were not in their interest.

This is the stuff of class warfare, which again prompts that same presidential question: Would the parents in Huntington Park and Bell hold their noses on objectionable Republican immigration positions and vote for better schools?

My hunch: Parents reliably vote for their kids’ future.

I know what you’re thinking: Surely the Democratic nominee won’t surrender Obama school reform initiatives.

Don’t be naive. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, may be the most politically savvy union leader this country has ever seen. Would Weingarten force an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton if she didn’t believe Clinton, once in office, would step aside from her previous support for charters?

Oh yes, this split is coming, and it’s not going to end well.

Richard Whitmire, an Emerson Collective fellow, is the author of several education books and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.


« Back to List