Skip to content

How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party

The Democrats and DeVos have more in common than they’d care to admit

In a Facebook post this summer, hedge fund billionaire Daniel Loeb took aim at the highest ranking Black woman in the New York legislator, Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “[H]ypocrites like Stewart-Cousins who pay fealty to powerful union thugs and bosses,” wrote Loeb, “do more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood.” The rant, which had the exquisite misfortune of appearing just days before the actual KKK took to the streets of Charlottesville to menace nonwhite people and their allies, struck a familiar Loeb theme. In a previous post he implored his peer to take up the fight against the teachers union: “the biggest single force standing in the way of quality education and an organization that has done more to perpetuate poverty and discrimination against people of color than the KKK.”

It would be easy to dismiss all this frothing as just Loeb being Loeb. This is, after all, the same crusader for justice who once lambasted a CEO for his imperial lifestyle, not an easy charge to level from a ten-thousand-square-foot penthouse. But the NYC financier is not just any hedge fund billionaire. As the chair of the board of Success Academy, New York’s largest network of charter schools, he is a leading force within the nexus of big money and self-proclaimed school “reformers” within the Democratic party. While Loeb doesn’t limit his donations to Dems (as his profile on the married-but-looking dating site, Ashley Madison, indicated, he is not one to be tied down), he exerts the kind of outsized influence that $3.2 billion in net worth reliably commands these days.

Where The Economist goes, influential “thought leaders” are sure to follow.

There’s another reason why we can’t dismiss Loeb’s view that teachers unions promote income inequality and serve as a barrier to progress of any sort as just another crackpot rich-bro outburst. That’s because it’s now a key policy plank of responsible elite opinion almost everywhere. Flip back to The Economist—the bible of savvy, entrepreneurial-minded social criticism—circa 2012, and you’ll find Loeb’s screed rendered in assured magazine prose, minus the overt racist incitements. To wit: “no Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have.”

And where The Economist goes, influential “thought leaders” are sure to follow. So now, as America ponders the mounting economic disequilibriums that gave rise to the Trump insurgency, concerned plutocrats can all agree on one key article of faith: what is holding back the poor and minority children who figure so prominently in the glossy brochures of charter school advocates is not the legacy of racist housing policy or mass incarceration or a tax system that hoovers up an ever growing share of income into the pockets of the wealthy, but schoolteachers and their unions.

It was thus no great shock to see that, just weeks after Loeb apologized for his offensive language, attributing it to his passion for “education choice,” David Osborne, a professional Democratic party thinker who heads up something called the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, said essentially the same thing. On a swing through Philadelphia to promote his new book on the wonders of school privatization, Osborne told an interviewer that teachers unions belong in the same category with segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. “They’re actually doing what George Wallace did, standing in the schoolhouse door, denying opportunity to poor minority kids.” To document their perfidy, Osborne cited the opposition of teachers unions in Massachusetts last year to Question Two—a ballot initiative proposing dramatic charter school expansion. Voters rejected the measure by nearly two to one—the same ratio, as it happens, by which wealthy pro-charter donors dwarfed the union spending that so upset Osborne.

Origin Stories

To begin to chronicle the origin of the Democrats’ war on their own—the public school teachers and their unions that provide the troops and the dough in each new campaign cycle to elect the Democrats—is to enter murky territory. The Clintons were early adopters; tough talk against Arkansas’s teachers, then among the poorest paid in the country, was a centerpiece of Bill’s second stint as Governor of Arkansas. As Hillary biographer Carl Bernstein recounts, the Arkansas State Teachers Association became the villain that cemented the couple’s hold on the Governor’s mansion—the center of their Dick Morris-inspired “permanent campaign.” The civil rights language in which the Democratic anti-union brigade cloaks itself today was then nowhere to be heard, however. And little wonder: Civil rights groups fiercely opposed the most controversial feature of the Clintons’ reform agenda—competency tests for teachers—on the grounds that Black teachers, many of whom had attended financially starved Black colleges, would disproportionately bear their brunt.

Tough talk against Arkansas’ teachers, then among the poorest paid in the country, was a centerpiece of Bill’s second stint as Governor of Arkansas.

Hillary made the cause her personal crusade in 1983, trotting out anecdote after anecdote about teachers she’d heard about who couldn’t add or read. The reform package passed, cementing Bill’s reputation as a new breed of Democratic governor, one who wasn’t afraid to take on entrenched interests in order to tackle tough problems. “Anytime you’re going to turn an institution upside down, there’s going to be a good guy and a bad guy,” recalls Clinton campaign manager Richard Herget. “The Clintons painted themselves as the good guys. The bad guys were the schoolteachers.”

By the early 1980s, there was already a word for turning public institutions upside down: neoliberalism. Before it degenerated into a flabby insult, neoliberal referred to a self-identified brand of Democrat, ready to break with the tired of dogmas of the past. “The solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties,” wrote Randall Rothenberg in his breathless 1984 paean to this new breed, whom he called simply The Neoliberals. His list of luminaries included the likes of Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Gary Hart and Al Gore (for the record, Gore eschewed the neoliberal label in favor of something he liked to call “neopopulism”). In Rothenberg’s telling, the ascendancy of the neoliberals represented an economic repositioning of the Democratic Party that had begun during the economic crises of the 1970s. The era of big, affirmative government demanding action—desegregate those schools, clean up those polluted rivers, enforce those civil rights and labor laws—was over. It was time for fresh neo-ideas.

Redistribution and government intervention were out; investment and public-private partnerships were the way to go. Neoliberal man (there are no women included in Rothenberg’s account) was also convinced that he had found the answer to the nation’s economic malaise: education, or as he was apt to put it, investment in human capital. “Education equals growth is a neoliberal equation,” writes Rothenberg.

But this new cult of education wasn’t grounded in John Dewey’s vision of education-as-democracy, or in the recent civil-rights battles to extend the promise of public education to excluded African-American communities. No, these bold, results-oriented thinkers understood that in order to fuel economic growth, schools had to be retooled and aligned in concert with the needs of employers. The workers of the future would be prepared to compete nimbly in the knowledge-based post-industrial society of the present, For the stragglers still trapped in older, industrial-age models of enterprise and labor, re-training—another staple of the neoliberal vision—would set them on the path to greater prosperity.

Of course, not everyone was on board with the new program—yet. The teachers unions were impeding progress, but that was to be expected, writes Rothenberg, citing what he described as the development of an “education bureaucracy . . . counterproductive to the goals of the 1980s.” By the final pages of the book, he is exultant, concluding that “Neoliberalism is being internalized by the Democratic Party.” The party’s 1982 midterm convention in Philadelphia had come and gone with no call for national health insurance, a federal jobs program or a guaranteed annual income. By the next year, even the teachers unions appeared to be coming around; both endorsed a study of yet another cornerstone of the neoliberal vision for schools: merit pay.

Neither Clinton appears in The Neoliberals and yet their 1982 Arkansas campaign provided a template that Democrats have turned to again and again. Following the political demonology pioneered by Arkansas’ first couple, neoliberal policy innovators routinely cast teachers as self-interested dunderheads, impeding progress, civil rights advancement, even global economic competitiveness. While competency tests for those already teaching have dropped off the reformer menu, efforts to ferret out the losers and the bad apples have only accelerated, acquiring a moral gloss and an invaluable bit of Silicon Valley cachet along the way. By 2010, Obama education chief Arne Duncan was demanding that the “value added” scores of teachers—the algorithmically determined measure of how much teachers boost the standardized test scores of their students—be made public. “Silence is not an option,” Duncan opined.

Today’s Democratic school reformers—a team heavy on billionaires, pols on the move, and paid advocates for whatever stripe of fix is being sold—depict their distaste for regulation, their zeal for free market solutions as au courant thinking.

Today’s Democratic school reformers—a team heavy on billionaires, pols on the move, and paid advocates for whatever stripe of fix is being sold—depict their distaste for regulation, their zeal for free market solutions as au courant thinking. They rarely acknowledge their neoliberal antecedents. The self-described radical pragmatists at the Progressive Policy Institute, for instance, got their start as Bill Clinton’s policy shop, branded as the intellectual home for New Democrats. Before its current push for charter schools, PPI flogged welfare reform. In fact, David Osborne, the man so fond of likening teacher unions to arch segregationists in the south, served as Al Gore’s point person for “reinventing government.” Today the model for Osborne’s vision for reinventing public education is post-Katrina New Orleans—where 7,500 mostly Black school employees were fired en route to creating the nation’s first nearly all-charter-school-system, wiping out a pillar of the city’s Black middle class in the process.

Take ‘Em to School

The Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism is typically presented as inevitable: the strategy of relying on government to solve social problems had run out of juice, therefore, it was time to hand the works over to the proven masters of the market order. Fear City, Kim Phillips-Fein’s dazzling new history of New York City’s 1975 fiscal collapse and its aftermath, punctures that myth. Phillips-Fein tells the story of how and why ordinary New Yorkers, including its teachers, fire fighters and other public servants, resisted the imposition of austerity and the rollback of the public sector that neoliberal policy savants sought to force through together with the city’s financial rescue. New York City’s troubles were far from unique—deindustrialization combined with federal policies speeding whites and their taxes out of the city on subsidized highways into subsidized suburbs was wreaking havoc in other cities too. But the city’s robust public sector, which had come about via decades of organizing by unions and urban reformers, was unlike anything else in the United States.

Ordinary New Yorkers fought back against what they saw as a diminished vision for the city and what they were entitled to, argues Phillips-Fein. “[T]hey intuited that New York would emerge from the crisis a changed metropolis,” she writes. “The people who would come to have the deciding vote would be those who belonged to the moneyed elite.” Within a few years, New York City was on its way toward the staggering inequality that defines it today. There were 100,000 homeless students in the NYC Public Schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Meanwhile a full quarter of the income earned in the city now ends up in the pockets of the highest of the high earners.

Virtually the sole solution proffered by the city’s hyper-elite for addressing the woes of poor and working class New Yorkers these days is education reform: a constellation of policies aimed at subjecting public education to the logic of the market. Forget about economic solutions, such as redoubled public investment in affordable housing, or a tax system that redistributes obscene levels of wealth downward. Robin Hood, in the playground of New York’s education reform elites, refers to the foundation that bears the outlaw’s name, redistributing the beneficence from the city’s hyper fortunate to the charter school networks and education reform organizations they favor. The city’s once expansive welfare system may have shriveled, but at Education Reform Now’s Take ‘Em to School Poker Night, a $100,000 donation will land you at the “straight flush table.” Proceeds from the annual event, which attracts a Who’s Who roster of financial industry professionals, go to support, among other things, Democratic candidates who support charter schools.

The cautionary tale of New York City is not unlike the story of the contemporary Democratic Party. The price for letting the financiers run everything is that they also get to define the limits of what’s possible. When Dan Loeb accused the Democratic State Senate leader Stewart-Cousins of being worse than the KKK, he also held up his vision of a model Democrat. “Thank God for Jeff Klein and those who stand for educational choice and support Charter funding that leads to economic mobility and opportunity for poor knack [sic] kids.” Klein is the head of a breakaway faction of Democrats who caucus with Republicans in the New York State Senate. Since 2011, the group has worked doggedly to protect and advance the interests of billionaires, a natural resource in which New York abounds.

“What you have in New York is a fight over the nature of democracy and whether the legislature in state government can fairly represent all of the people or whether money and power will be marshalled in favor of some,” Michael Kink of the New York activist group Hedge Clippers told me. In response to the recent surge of energy on the left, the hedge-funded Democrats increasingly market their agenda items in the language of psuedo-populist reform, while blocking efforts—on housing, education funding, health care, tax policy, and bank regulation—aimed at directly remedying the state’s steepening inequalities of wealth, income, and opportunity.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s much hyped free tuition plan, for example, an undertaking so transparently craven that even the New York Times editorial board could see through it, will enable Cuomo to don a Sandersesque mantle of populist insurgency when he launches his inevitable race for the White House in 2020. But Cuomo has long cast as his go-to villain the teachers of his state. New York’s public schools were a monopoly, he harrumphed back in 2014, one that he planned to help break up.

A Lesser Deal

When national Democrat leaders dropped “better skills” from their friendly populist “Better Deal” sales pitch this summer, it was not because the project of retraining obsolesced workers exerts less appeal in today’s anxious times than it did in the seventies. The grand unifying Better Deal slogan “better skills, better jobs, better wages” sounded an awful lot like an ad for the pizza delivery chain Papa John’s, as conservative commentators mirthfully pointed out. Yet among the elites who fill the party’s coffers and hold outsized sway over its priorities, the neoliberal faith in “college and career readiness” as the answer to stalled growth and rising resentment seems only to have redoubled. Now aided by a small army of billionaire school reformers and the sales-driven passion of Silicon Valley “edupreneurs,” the cause lives on—like a seventies suit made from “smart” data-collecting fabric—even as actual data undermines it.

“Education is the single best way to improve middle class living standards over the long term,” opined reliable reform scribe David Leonhardt in a recent New York Times column. The statement, one he makes with regularity, ran alongside a graph depicting the chasm of inequality, which has, contrary to Leonhardt’s dutiful recitation of ed reform pieties, grown ever wider even as Americans have grown steadily more educated.

Consider, in the same grimly edifying regard, the remarkable spectacle of the XQ Super School Live, an all-star extravaganza that ran on all four major networks at the end of the summer. XQ is the brainchild of Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, who has shelled out $100 million of her nearly twenty billion dollar fortune to “rethink” the American high school. According to Jobs, our high schools are dangerously outmoded and ill equipped to the meet the demands of the 21st century. As celeb pitchmen like Samuel L. Jackson reminded viewers repeatedly during the telecast: schools haven’t changed in a hundred years!

Unlike the old schools, which the XQ sales pitch derides as the educational equivalent of the Model T and the switchboard, “super schools” will be designed for the future—all Tesla and Smartphones. And they will, at long last, fix America’s brainpower crisis. “Our country’s CEOs struggle to recruit hires with the right skills, and good jobs are going begging,” says Russlynn Ali, cofounder of XQ and former Obama administration education official. Of course, a real brainpower crisis would mean rising pay for workers, as employers would have no choice but to increase wages in order to attract these elusive skilled workers. Perhaps the best way for the Super Schools to prepare the workers of the future, then, is to teach them to work for less.

Perhaps the best way for the Super Schools to prepare the workers of the future, then, is to teach them to work for less.

The telecast featured an awkward red-carpet style homage to teachers, but the heart-warming anecdotes commemorating the invaluable work teachers do barely disguised the threat lurking off stage. XQ, which was cofounded by Russlyn H. Ali, a former Obama administration education official comes steeped in the faux liberal rhetoric favored by Obamists. We are a community of people mobilizing to reimagine high school, the XQ refrain goes. But beneath the buzzwords lurks the same spirit that led the Clintons to take on teachers in 1983: turning institutions upside down requires a villain. Subjecting schools to Silicon Valley-style disruption will require taking on teachers, school boards, and above all, the progress-impeding unions.

Barely a week after XQ Super Schools Live aired, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos launched her own rethinking schools tour, challenging the “mundane malaise” that is stifling the nation’s youngsters. She trotted out the same set of talking points that the XQ stars had recited: schools haven’t changed in fifty years; education technology will save us. But DeVos left no doubt as to the destination of her version of rethinking; she has lately taken to paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that there is, in fact, no such thing as society–and hence no genuine collective demand for social improvement. “Today there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system,’” DeVos said in her kick-off speech. “What’s an education ‘system?’ There’s no such thing! Are you a system? No, you’re individual students, teachers and parents.”

The irony is that the DeVos-Trump vision for fixing our schools is almost as unpopular as the GOP’s plan for health care; if there’s political ground to be gained with Trump supporters, the defense of public education is fertile territory. DeVos’ nomination sparked ferocious grassroots opposition, red and blue, and in a cabinet of rogues, she remains Trump’s most reviled official. Her signature issue—paying for private religious schools with taxpayer funds—has never been popular with voters, even in deep red states.

The problem is that the Democrats have little to offer that’s markedly different from what DeVos is selling. Teachers unions, regulation, and government schools are the problem, Democrats continue insisting into the void; deregulation, market competition and school choice are the fix. Four decades after the neo-Democrats set their sights on the education bureaucracy, the journey has reached its predictable destination: with a paler version of what the right has been offering all along.

When the Democrats next attempt to rouse the base of unionized teachers they count on to be their foot soldiers, they are sure to meet with disappointment. In once reliably blue states like Michigan and Wisconsin, the unions have been eviscerated. The right went all in to crush unions—not because they “impede social mobility,” but because they elect Democrats. That wager is now paying off handsomely.