Shifts in Democratic Party platform on testing reflects deep divide on education, shift away from Obama politices
Posted August 7, 2016
The Democratic National Convention was jarred by leaked emails suggesting party leaders rigged the nomination in favor of Hillary Clinton.
It got much less attention, but another email in that same leaked collection shows Democratic Party strategists backing away from key planks of President Obama's education policy and highlights a key policy divide in the Democratic coalition.
In May, the leaked email shows, Eric Walker, the deputy communications director at the DNC, rejected a TV ad that would have defended Common Core, the education standards introduced during the Obama administration, and called out GOP candidates for favoring local control of education.
"Common Core is a political third rail that we should not be touching at all," Walker wrote. "Get rid of it." (Meaning get rid of the reference in the ad, not the Common Core itself.)
Walker also suggested removing video clips featuring Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump calling for local control of education. Criticizing the two GOP candidates for demanding local control of education was politically dicey, Walker argued.
"Most people want local control of education," he wrote, "so having Cruz and Trump saying it on a DNC video is counterproductive. Would get rid of any references to that."
Both localization and opposition to the Common Core are at odds with longstanding Obama administration education policy. Under Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Obama team spent the past eight years centralizing federal control over education, encouraging what became the Common Core curriculum, and insisting that schools must be evaluated using test scores.
None of this really surprised the teacher unions, a key part of the Democratic coalition.
"Obama was candid with the unions in 2007," said Peter Cunningham, a Democrat who served as assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration. "He told them he supported merit pay, teacher accountability and parental choice. They booed him and endorsed Hillary."
Cunningham, who is now executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based education reform journal, remains an outspoken supporter of federal leadership and school accountability. But he laments the current split in what had been what he saw as a 25-year bipartisan consensus on education reform.
Cunningham objects to the Democratic Party platform, approved at the convention in Philadelphia this week. The platform opposes "high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color," using those tests to close failing schools, and using tests to evaluate teachers or principals.
The platform also supports "enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their school."
"Now we have testing but you can't use the tests to hold anyone accountable," Cunningham said. "This puts at risk the very kids we are supposed to be fighting for," Cunningham said.
The DNC's skittishness about "third rail" education controversies, evident in the leaked email and the party's new platform, reflects a widening split within the Democratic Party over education policy, which burst open in 2015 when teacher unions and many parents pushed back against the new standardized tests designed to see how well students were doing with the Common Core curriculum.
This was a reaction to an aggressive push for centralization and accountability under Obama. Led by Duncan, the administration parlayed vague language in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act to create programs that compelled states to use standardized tests to evaluate teachers and schools.
The few states like Washington that refused to cooperate faced weighty federal funding penalties. In 2014, Washington state was forced to divert $38 million in federal funds from the classroom to prescribed tutoring programs, and an additional $19 million was diverted to "teacher training."
In the last few years, teacher unions have become outspoken critics of standardized testing, which they argue robs teachers of their autonomy and turns classrooms into test prep factories.
When National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia spoke with the Deseret News last July, she made little effort to contain her frustration.
"It is an absolute factory mentality," Garcia said, "and it comes from the 1915 industrial era. To make a car, one guy turns a wrench, all day long, and another guy puts tires on, all day long, and by the end of the line, it meets specifications. We are looking at a factory model that says, 'You don’t hit your cut score then you are a bad test technician because your product — this kid’s brain — didn’t meet specifications.'"
But Democrat and education reformer Cunningham is not yielding ground without a fight. The twin pillars of bipartisan education reform since the early 1990s, he argues, are that schools should be accountable and parents should have choice, mainly in the form of public charter schools.
Both the Clintons were among the earliest supporters of the charter movement in the 1990s, Cunningham notes. And he suspects that Hillary is giving rhetorical nods to the unions, not fundamentally reversing course.
Still, Cunningham says he is "disappointed that the party platform got hijacked" by teacher unions opposed to testing and charter schools.
Civil rights concerns
Cunningham has allies in the civil rights community, whose leaders were among the staunchest opponents of localization and defenders of testing and accountability in the battles over the past few years.
Civil rights groups such as the NAACP feared that if the federal government no longer rode herd on the states, failing urban schools serving minority children would once again disappear from the radar screen.
When the new education law was passed in 2015, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said it was "deeply disappointed" with provisions that "diminish the longstanding federal footprint and relegate significant discretion to the states."
"This federal role is essential," the NAACP LDF continued, "When responsibility for education is left to the sole discretion of states, it is often the most vulnerable students, especially students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities, who are deprived of quality educational opportunities."
"We hear the teacher frustration," said Liz King, senior policy analyst and director of education policy for the nonpartisan Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based umbrella group representing 200 major civil rights organizations.
"We want every school to be a great place to teach and to learn," King said, But we also think there is a role for statewide annual assessment to help make that happen."
LCCHR recently did an education survey of black and Latino parents, King said, which found no measurable parental concerns about overtesting. "We did see desire for strong teachers in the classroom, meaningful equity and high quality core instructional programs," King said.
But King was reluctant to criticize the Democratic platform, arguing that for all of her objections there is more to like there than in its GOP counterpart. The civil rights agenda on education, King emphasizes, includes much more than just school accountability. The platform also includes language on the cost of higher ed, resource equity among schools, protections for LGBT students. And on all these points, she said, the Democratic platform is aligned with the LCCHR.
"I think more is being made of some of the words in the DNC platform than is necessary," King said.