Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Education Policy Blunders

Here’s my theory of how Democrats can win the next election.

It doesn’t have anything to do with electability, because one man’s ‘electable’ is another woman’s ‘no thanks, old white dude.’ It also doesn’t have anything to do with one specific issue—because there are a dozen bona fide Hot! Burning! Critical! issues right now (the destruction of the planet, for starters) and nobody seems to be paying much attention to the one candidate who puts that at the top of his list.

We got troubles, right here in River City.

Fortunately for us, we also have at least a dozen pretty good candidates, probably more. And we have months of opportunity to hear lots more from each of them, to actually use the primary debates as a thoughtful winnowing, an in-depth national conversation on the full range of issues. We can not only pick a candidate, we can audition candidates for other Congressional roles, as potential cabinet members, judges and future political stars.

Unless Donald Trump doesn’t make it to the finish line— and even if the plug gets pulled mid-campaign— we are surely looking two old conservative white men as Republican opponents. While it may seem shallow and obvious to focus on demographics, Democrats can run a ticket that represents women, people of color and younger voters. If you put together women, POC and progressive youth as a voting bloc, that’s a considerably bigger cohort than 50%.  The trick is to get them excited about actually voting.

Which is why I was so disappointed to see educators—teachers! — going after Elizabeth Warren.

Not because she’s my top candidate. I don’t have a top candidate. In fact, I mistrust anyone who’s settled on The One. Because what that means is that you’ll start aggressively looking for flaws in the other candidates and focus entirely on your candidate’s virtues (real or imagined) and the narrow band of issues that mean the most to you. You’ll stop listening to negatives about your candidate (and they all have negatives).

You may actually start writing blogs about why you don’t like a potentially viable candidate, dredging up meh reasons that they cannot be trusted. You may throw around phrases like ‘hard pass’ and ‘no way in hell’ and ‘never liked her anyway.’ You may dig deep into things the candidate said decades ago, even stretch the truth, just a bit, to make your point and attract like-minded readers.

You can also start valuing things that don’t matter much, in the big picture: Which candidate publicly introduced an idea before the other candidates, for example. In building a coherent and comprehensive set of policy suggestions, first isn’t necessarily best. Nor is changing one’s mind a deal-breaker. I admire a candidate who looks at the evidence and then articulately shifts position.

Demanding that a candidate release a full accounting of his or her views on a particular subject RIGHT NOW is also foolish. Candidates deserve the right to listen to lots of potential voting groups and examine their own values before constructing a set of pledges and promises (which, as all adult voters, including MAGA types, know, are not guarantees).

So let’s talk specifics here: Charter schools—and Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren.

I am ardently opposed to charter schools, based on the indisputable outcomes of a mature charter environment, the literal mountain of evidence that has accrued in my home state, Michigan. I’ve written about this at some length (here, here, here) and so has the local press (here).

Some of my former students teach in charters (because that’s the only place new teachers in MI can get jobs); people in my family teach in charters. It’s either that or don’t teach at all. They know how I feel—and mostly, they know what the evidence says. Charters, however—for worse, not ever better, are now deeply woven into the Michigan landscape, inescapable.

When I moved to the town where I now live, some 10 years ago, I joined the League of Women Voters and discovered they’d produced a paper in support of charter schools and choice in general. I was stunned. Didn’t they know what charters were doing to Detroit Public Schools—or why that mattered to them, ultimately?

I learned that the paper had been written when there was one mom-and-pop, hands-on learning/small class size/progressive curriculum charter in town. And some of the members’ grandchildren attended the school, happily. There was no evidence that the educational ecology had been negatively impacted.

That was then. Now, things really are different. There are more than enough data and school closings (and a local charter founder in prison for tax evasion). Anyone who’s paying attention can see what a terrible idea it is to give public money to privately—often secretively—managed schools.

But I understand that many states which have resisted charters, or maintained strong oversight and controlling legislation, are where Michigan was 10-15 years ago. Charters don’t seem like a big deal to some voters—not as big a deal as crushing student debt, the opioid crisis, climate change or the growing and dangerous gap between haves and have-nots. And alienating civic-minded, legislatively engaged parents whose children are in charters (or private schools, for that matter) is a politically unsavvy idea at the moment.

Deciding that one candidate—Warren– must be booted out of contention, simply because the woman who introduced her at a rally had ties to charter world feels nitpicky at best. Charging her with disloyalty because one of her education advisors got his start in Teach for America?

Well. I want to hear a lot more about Warren’s vision for K12. I want to hear what she thinks about rebuilding the teacher pipeline, using fully trained and qualified teachers (and promising to support better pay for important work), not two-year adventure teachers. But I refuse to judge any candidate on what amounts to skimpy, unspecific charges. Working for a non-profit or joining TFA out of college is not a full-throated declaration of principles.

Just as Buttigieg’s stint at McKinsey doesn’t mean he’s a raving conservative capitalist, and Klobuchar’s reputed binder-throwing doesn’t mean she’s abusive, and Harris’s record of doing her job as a big-city prosecutor doesn’t mean she lacks compassion—Warren’s staffers are not proof that she is anti-public education or anti-teacher. We all need to take a step back and look at the big picture.

We have several good, viable candidates. Let’s ask the hard questions. Let’s not pick our personal number-one and go after the others. Resist the lure of the all-American horse race, for once. Develop a list of five, rotating new faces in and out. Look for strengths, rather than inventing weakness. Allow for mind-changing (even for Uncle Joe Biden, and others whose records as governors and mayors are pretty clear). Waiting before pulling the trigger is almost always the best plan.

But what about charters? William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, writing about policy, notes that the most popular and sticky public policies have benefits for everyone, even if their origin was around solving a problem for a specific group. Charter schools, at least rhetorically, were supposed to provide educational options, especially for those whose schools were not meeting their needs. Pretty quickly, they morphed into a back door for those who saw K-12 education as a giant, untapped market.

If Wilson is right, what we need is a system of schools that meet all children’s needs reasonably well. A plan to shut down charters through federal intervention will be neither universally popular nor sticky. We need to support all public schools—the suburban schools that are community centers, the urban schools with wrap-around services, the little boutique schools with unique curricula. We need to make public education so resource-rich and service-oriented—so popular and sticky– that charters can’t compete.

And we aren’t going to do that by trashing any of the Democratic candidates. That’s counter-productive.

PRIMARIES_DEM_FRONT_MAY6

13 Comments

  1. I am not choosing a candidate to support this early on. I’m listening and being open to the process. The teachers who questioned Elizabeth Warren’s choice of a charter school enthusiast to introduce her in Oakland are generally Elizabeth Warren supporters. We are scrutinizing all the candidates on their public education views, their support for charters and vouchers, and who advises them. I feel like it’s strange for people to be criticizing teachers and public school advocates for taking a critical look and asking critical questions of each of our candidates. We’ve had too much mingling of corporate ideas of ed reform with public ed policies over the past 20 + years. I’m happy to see that Democrats are paying more attention to k-12 students and teachers this election cycle. Public education is the cornerstone of a strong democracy and we should be encouraging lively engaging debates on every issue.

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    1. Hmm. I am not certain that the people who angrily/snarkily questioned Warren’s choice of person to introduce her ARE, in fact, Warren supporters at any level.

      While I fully agree that everyone has the right and responsibility to ask critical questions of all candidates–and that understanding just how aggressively public education has been pushed into a corner by destructive policy is an important quality in a potential president– I was surprised and dismayed at how quickly the thoughtful critique morphed into outright bashing.

      It’s possible that we’re reading different pieces. Most of what I was reading concluded that Warren was toast.
      Thanks for commenting.

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      1. I’m in the Bay Area and was pretty engaged with the discussion about the teacher who introduced Warren at the Oakland rally. I have two close mutual friends with that teacher. I’m also Facebook friends with the teacher who attended the rally and initially raised the concerns. I was one of the early voices sharing some of the concerns (TBH, before I learned that I had personal connections with the teacher/presenter). The teacher who raised concerns was impressed with Warren and disposed to support her, and so am I, but the education issues raised big concerns for both of us. I had direct discussion with Diane Ravitch about this, and she too is inclined to admire Warren.

        In other words, it’s just flat-out not true that the people who raised questions questions were opposed to Warren to begin with. Here’s the lay of the land: Oakland has been a playground for billionaires for years, allowing them to impose their will on the schools. That has led to a charter scourge, led by the operation Great Oakland (GO) Public Schools, funded by the Waltons and other billionaires. Recently OUSD, after all those years, has acknowledged the damage charters are doing to the district after studying the costs. And this year, Oakland was racked by a teacher strike in which the ravages of charter schools were a big issue.

        Against that backdrop, the selection of a teacher with a charter background to introduce Warren seemed disturbing and symbolic, despite the good things that person has done. The obviously more savvy choice would have been a working OUSD teacher who had been on the picket lines. I have tried very hard not to make this about the individual teacher/Warren presenter at all (she was, obviously, deeply distressed at the controversy); I understand that many young teachers have to start out in charters; I recognize that teachers who want to go into policy or similar work are likely to HAVE to accept the Waltons’ tainted money. But I still have to point out that the teacher/Warren presenter, in the discussion about her work, has said she worked to *promote* the toxic GO Public Schools and even *volunteered* for GOPS — who *volunteers* for the Waltons? They’re supposed to give *you* money. Obviously she was unclear on the concept, but this still all factors into the brouhaha. People need to pay attention to what they’re doing.

        Given the fact that teachers and education advocates had such high hopes for Obama and he stabbed them in the back, the heightened concerns seem understandable this time around.

        The other concern raised, of course, is that Warren’s staff education adviser comes from Teach for America. It’s not just that that’s his teaching background but that he came to his job through a TFA program to put its people in government policy positions to promote the policies TFA favors — anti-teacher, anti-public-education, pro-privatization, anti-union — disparaging, undermining and deprofessionalizing veteran teachers. How will this factor into Warren’s views and actions on education?

        The highest-profile defense of the choice of the Oakland teacher as a presenter — by the celebrated author Rebecca Solnit, which heaped insults on everyone who raised concerns — made it clear that Solnit has a very shallow grasp of education issues or of advocates’ concerns. Her take is basically (paraphrasing): Warren says she’s against for-profit charters and will appoint a teacher as Ed Sec, so what else do you need to know? As has been pointed out, the irony here is that Solnit has written eloquently and pointedly about “mansplaining,” but she’s basically treating those far more knowledgeable about education than she is in the same way: Oh, you sillies, what IS your problem?

        Teachers and education advocates want to know that Warren understands the full picture (such as: It’s not just *for-profit* charters that are the destructive force); that she isn’t going to appoint a TFA or charter teacher as EdSec and call it a day; that she genuinely supports public education. The situations describe raise concerns. It’s legitimate to discuss those concerns, and those who raise them don’t deserve a barrage of insults and putdowns. And again, those concerns were NOT raised by Warren opponents or Bernie bros, so that’s a misstatement that should be corrected.

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      2. Thanks for the Oakland perspective, which IS very different than a long-distance attack on a young woman (and Warren) to disparage her campaign. A lot of the discussion around charters–around any hot-button education issue, in fact–is colored by the way it looks in your backyard. For example, I know precisely who would be the wrong person to introduce a progressive candidate in charter-destroyed Detroit. In Oakland, even though I understand the strength and causes of the strike, I need a scorecard to know the players and the organizations.

        Thanks also for noting that young teachers who want to be movers and shakers often don’t see the big policy-funder picture. And it’s not just young teachers. I am a former state Teacher of the Year. Many TOYs, deeply honored to ‘represent’ teachers in their states, feel flattered to accept invitations into policy work and haven’t a clue who’s funding those conferences and workshops and white papers (and the high-end hotels and fancy lunches). They’re easily bought off, believing that the funder is honoring their expertise, rather than using their title and voice. TFA operates the same way–hey high-achieving student from a prestigious selective college! We want YOU to change the world! Forget those pedestrian veteran teachers with their state-college degrees–you’re now the expert!

        Which is why I’m inclined to see these blunders as symbolic, but—TBD—perhaps not substantive. I agree that Warren has explaining to do. But I also admire her for taking time to formulate a comprehensive answer, and not rushing to placate critics. Charter schools are now educating somewhere between 6% and 7% of all K-12 children–some 3.2 million. I understand why ANY candidate tries to thread the needle between enthusiastic charters supporters and public education advocates. We need a lot more information from ALL candidates, re: charter schools and TFA (not to mention testing and ‘accountability’) as they represent recent education policy. I’d like to think that other front-runners (Harris, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden and others) will release statements of belief and policy proposals as well–such statements would clarify a lot, and help us all decide which candidate genuinely is interested in a full-throated defense of public education.

        A lot of it depends, again, on where you (any ‘you’) stand. Have charters (as in Oakland and Detroit) decimated the public school ecology in your neck of the woods? If not (and I recently taught a graduate course on teacher leadership where most of my students thought charters were a vibrant addition to the landscape)–how important is this issue to you? And how would you respond to the Warren campaign’s perceived throwing two young people under the bus? As for Solnit, we know where she stands. With women. Maybe we need to stand someplace where every issue doesn’t have to be litigated with anger and accusation.

        I wrote the blog from a national perspective, and most of the feedback I’ve received has been positive. Thank you for illuminating what happened from your POV. It’s made me think.

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      3. Wow, this is somewhat off topic, but regarding this comment — “I recently taught a graduate course on teacher leadership where most of my students thought charters were a vibrant addition to the landscape” — I’m curious about whether these students have actual experience in a world with charters or whether they’re just responding to the billionaire-funded hype, media gushing and so on.

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      4. Re: the grad course where teachers were impressed by charter schools.
        It was in a state where there were no charters until very recently, and the ones that had been established were CMO models–KIPP and the like. No-excuses school that were planted in urban areas where schools had low test scores, and the charters showed growth. Urban teachers in the class had their kids (or grandkids) in charters. Class discussion about ultimate outcomes with charters–destruction of public systems, withdrawal of family/social capital–went nowhere.

        This is even further off topic, but in the same class, we did a case study on TFA, reading Alexander Russo’s piece on how TFA morphed from a source of emergency teachers for high-needs schools to its current ‘policy leadership’ version. They also read Gary Rubinstein’s blog and some of T. Jameson Brewer’s work. In discussion, these (mostly veteran) teachers remained dazzled by the whole idea of Teach for America (which did not, at that time, have a toehold in their state). The university had a ‘grow your own’ teacher fellowship program to recruit potential teachers of color, including people who were currently working as education aides. It had been pretty successful in supporting newbie teachers who intended to teach in the city through education, field experience and certification. Then TFA showed up and wheedled their way in, shortly after the course ended. Discouraging.

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      5. Oh, I also had to gently correct your reference to the *original blog.* That would presumably be *the blog that caught your attention* — apparently the Steven Singer blog. Diane Ravitch blogged about this issue before Singer did — in a post that had 140 responses last I looked — and there was discussion going on in the BATS and California BATS Facebook groups. As I said, the question was originally raised by a Warren supporter who attended the rally in Oakland because of her interest in Warren, but wondered why the teacher-presenter never mentioned the strike that had just racked Oakland. The discussion was carried on largely by people intrigued by Warren but curious or concerned or distressed by the issues raised here. Then Singer, apparently a Sanders supporter, picked it up with his spin, and I guess that’s what led to the really mean bashing by Rebecca Solnit of the people who raised these concerns, which caught a LOT of attention. Many voices critical of charters, TFA, high-stakes testing and other ed “reform” snake oil seemed to agree with Solnit and are unyielding even when given an informed explanation. To me it feels like there’s a lot of “STFU about your concerns,” which is really troubling.

        I so wish I were free to comment in more public places and correct some of the misinformation and misunderstanding about this, but alas, my job would be in jeopardy.

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      6. You’re right. I was tagged on Singer’s piece–and thought he was out of bounds. I interpreted his piece as hacking on Warren for a small transgression because she is the biggest threat to die-hard Sanders supporters. Much of what I’ve seen from that camp since then has been brutally anti-Warren. A lot of people love Singer’s take-no-prisoners style, but here’s how it impacted me: I started writing and calling the Warren campaign, and asking her to clarify. Not sure how I missed seeing it on Ravitch’s blog first–I subscribe and at least skim everything she posts.

        I also remember all the data on how the media covered the 2016 campaign–the huge imbalance between headline-grabbing Trump and dredging up old, bullshit stories about Clinton, the false equivalency of feeling that ‘journalism’ must represent ‘both sides’ in a race between a fully qualified female candidate and an obviously unfit man. I have a simmering resentment over how the Four Bs Boys have been covered in the incipient 2020 campaign, and Harris-Klobuchar-Gillibrand-Warren have been sidelined. In the past couple of weeks, Warren’s campaign has picked up some media steam–and some support in minority communities–and I saw Singer’s piece as a shutdown to that. I really did miss the Oakland teachers’ perspective.

        Thanks for a good conversation.

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    2. Also, I would disagree that the tone of the discussion was angry/snarky except for one blogger 3,000 miles away. Those in my orbit and on Diane Ravitch’s blog who were discussing it were genuinely distressed, sincere and hopeful that the message would get through to Warren that she needs to reassure educators and education advocates that she will work to genuinely understand the issues and respond to their concerns.

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      Reply

      1. We were clearly reading different responses. I read the original blog (3000 miles away, from a definite Bernie Guy)–I was tagged, BTW–and at least 50 bitterly negative, never-Liz comments, between the half-dozen FB sites where it was posted. Much of the vitriol was centered on ‘we already have a great candidate–why do we need her?’ and a lot of the ‘she’s a Republican in sheep’s clothing’ variety.

        There’s also the fact that the blog and subsequent criticisms were leveled against a young black man and woman of color, a factor to weigh in the ultimate resolution of this (to me) sad occurrence. Again, thanks.

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  2. I began teaching in 1968 and stopped in December 2017 after teaching in 7 Western States. The quality of decisions made by central administration is poor in most places.
    Whether in rural areas or in cities decision-making needs substantial improvement. How is public education going to improve without effective leaders?
    — Danaher Dempsey

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  3. The whole “gotcha” quality of the conversation about Democratic candidates is really a distraction. Every single candidate is going to have something negative in their background because they are all over 35 years old. What I am looking for in a presidential candidate is somebody who is thinking about our government and its national policies as a **system** — not as a series of popularity contests. That is why it takes months to fully develop their platforms.

    Great post.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

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    1. Oh—well said, Elizabeth CM. It’s about improving systems. If we dedicated as much money and creative thought into rebuilding public–fully public–education, neighborhood schools, as we do into ‘disruption,’ we could save a great deal of wasted resources.

      I am always dumbfounded when people refuse to understand what the consequences (unintended or planned-for) might be when introducing a Big New Thing–whether that’s a school, a health care proposal or a big box store. I think William Julius Wilson got it right. If the new thing offers something for everyone (not just the poor or the sick or the uneducated), it’s a lot more likely to be sustainable and successful.

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