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Can Democrats Save Public Schools from Trump and DeVos?

The first step is rethinking President Obama's own school-reform policies.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Anyone who cares about public education in America should be horrified by President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos to be education secretary. The billionaire Republican donor and heir to the Amway fortune is also one of the nation’s most influential advocates for the “school reform” movement that brought us George W. Bush’s failed No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s misbegotten Race to the Top. DeVos has long pushed for weakening teachers unions and expanding publicly funded and privately run charter schools. She’ll be eager to implement Trump’s massive voucher program, diverting billions from federal education spending to private (and sometimes religious, sometimes for-profit, sometimes virtual) schools.

Diane Ravitch—a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush who supported the school-reform agenda before changing her mind and becoming its leading critic—says that DeVos will be “the first education secretary in the history of the office who’s openly hostile to public education.” Which pretty well sums up the problem.

Hobbled as they are in the minority, Democrats must gear up to fight the coming assault on schooling as a public good. In the process, they will have to do something arguably more difficult: Acknowledge that the Democratic Party has lost its way in recent years on education policy, with many buying into the bad ideas and faulty assumptions that led Obama to double-down on Bush’s failings.

Despite some admirable achievements in school reform, Obama perpetuated high-stakes standardized testing and punitive teacher evaluations based on those assessments. He also furthered the cause of “school choice” by incentivizing the expansion of charter schools.

Most fundamentally, Obama’s administration bought into the propaganda that’s been spread for two decades about America’s public schools being in mortal crisis. The evidence shows that’s just not true.

Take the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s a trusted test that’s been given every few years by the Department of Education to representative samples of students since 1969. Last year saw a dip in the scores, but the trend has been a steady increase over the decades, with black and Hispanic students making tremendous gains in the past 20 years. Unacceptable gaps persist based on race, ethnicity, and income—and of course we should be working to close them. But this longstanding notion that the education system is failing is a “manufactured crisis,” to quote the title of an influential book that refuted the claim back in 1996.

“We don’t have a crisis in education,” Ravitch says. “What we’re faced with is a social crisis of poverty, of inequality, of kids who don’t speak English, of kids with disabilities.”

Trump and DeVos present the perfect moment for Democrats to truly champion public education again—to reclaim the narrative that the party stands for everyone getting a great education, not just those who can afford it. In the coming years, school reform will once again be strongly identified with the Republican Party, particularly if Democrats let them own it by unifying in opposition. Instead of arguing fine points of charter regulation or voucher funding with the new administration, it’s the ideal moment for Democrats to stand clearly against new “school choice” policies. As they argue against DeVos’s billion-dollar experiments, they can begin to dispel the myth that our public schools are somehow a catastrophe in need of radical, unproven fixes.

The first step for Democrats—a big one—is to walk away from the failures of the past eight years.

Obama’s signature education policy was his Race to the Top competition. The initiative gave grants to states in exchange for adopting the administration’s reform policies, many of which had a host of negative effects. First, there was the tying of teacher evaluations to the high-stakes, state-issued standardized tests ushered in by Bush. This put teachers’s jobs on the line if students—even the most challenging ones, in the most disadvantaged settings—didn’t achieve at certain levels. Along with the impact on morale, that in turn led to scandals across the country where teachers artificially inflated scores, and some educators even went to jail.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive study of the country’s largest school districts released last year found the average student took 112 of these high-stakes tests before graduating high school, and that eighth-graders spent more than 25 hours on the exams. (After that report, the Obama administration finally took some corrective action, issuing an “action plan” to states to scale back the madness.)

Race to the Top also promoted “school choice,” encouraging the expansion of charter schools, which receive public funding but operate without the same rules and regulations as their traditional counterparts. Advocates say this freedom helps them innovate, try new approaches, free from the constraints of stifling bureaucracy. And there are recent high-profile examples of charters boosting achievement in places like Boston, New York, and New Orleans.

But many charter schools are dismal failures, including those in Michigan championed by DeVos. After decades of DeVos-led campaigns to allow more and more for-profit charter schools in the state, The New York Times reports, “a federal review in 2015 found ‘an unreasonably high’ percentage of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The number of charter schools on that list had doubled since 2010, after the passage of a law a group financed by Ms. DeVos pushed to expand the schools.”

That’s not unusual across the country. “I haven’t seen any research that says charter schools are systematically better than [traditional] public schools,” Diane Ravitch says. Indeed, a widely cited Stanford University study in 2013 showed they performed no better on average, and some, of course, did worse. A new Economic Policy Institute report on 11 cities finds “many school districts have lost enrollment and revenue due to charter school expansion, which has increased inequities in the educational experiences for students.”

There’s a long list of other problems with charters, including profiteering, corruption and, critically, the draining of resources from the traditional schools most students attend. Still, they’ve won support from Democrats, particularly in communities of color, where students are often stuck in the least-successful schools. Even in these communities, though, the tide may be turning. In October, the NAACP ratified a resolution calling for a moratorium on charters, raising concerns about their lack of transparency and accountability; their drain on funding for traditional public schools; and their perpetuation of “de facto segregation.”

DeVos, of course, could make things worse, with her record of pushing for unregulated, unaccountable “Wild West”-style charters. Worse still would be her implementation of Trump’s $20 billion voucher plan (or something like it). On top of diverting money away from the public system, vouchers typically don’t achieve their goal of providing low-income students with better academic outcomes. What they do, often, is redirect public funds to religious education, including the teaching creationism as science classes.

The voucher program would represent a giant leap forward in the effort to privatize public schools. And again, Democrats have to recognize their own culpability. Ravitch and Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at the Columbia University Teachers College, both say Obama, in particular, helped make it possible.

“Did he help pave the way for this Trump agenda? Of course, because vouchers and more charter schools are the logical next step,” Abrams says. “I think his intentions were noble. I think Bush’s intentions were noble.”

In fairness, Obama is leaving behind some positive education legacies. He increased early childhood education, boosted Pell Grants, poured money into community colleges, made it easier to pay back student loans, and cracked down on exploitative for-profit universities. But the Obama administration—and many Democratic elected officials along with it—fundamentally bought into the Big Lie of the school reform movement—that American education is in widespread crisis.

Democrats need a new vision now. Ravitch, who’s often been persona non grata to those Democrats backing “school choice,” believes the disaster of DeVos may help recommit the party to fighting for public education—to making public schools better, and more equitable, rather than ripping up the system. “I think that, if anything, it’s going to energize the resistance,” she says. “It will be awful, and its awfulness will show itself.”

When it comes to the Democrats’ alternative agenda, Ravitch has a few ideas in her most recent book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. One of the most important recommendations is often given short shrift in education debates: “Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.” Why not have doctors, nurses, or health clinics in every school to keep students healthy? Why not have enrichment programs after school and over summer vacation, when the risk of the “summer slide”—losing academic gains from the previous year—is particularly pronounced for the most disadvantaged students?

Democrats can tout policies like these as part of a broader anti-poverty agenda. And once and for all, Democrats can let the GOP own testing tedium and teacher-trashing. Make Republicans the sole defenders of schooling as a market commodity, not an enlightened egalitarian ideal. Actually give the American people a clear alternative. That is the “school choice” we really need.