How Education Reform Lost Its Mojo
Today's reformers don't know how or when to fight.
It's been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad summer for education reform. After many years of bipartisan support, key elements of the reform agenda – higher standards, better teachers, test-based accountability, parental choice – are starved for oxygen in both the Republican and Democratic party platforms. Earlier this month, the NAACP further upset the reform apple cart with a call for a moratorium on new charter schools. Not to be outdone, a "platform" released by the Movement for Black Lives, a group of organizations organized by Black Lives Matter, issued a scorched earth condemnation of every aspect of the ed-reform agenda, which it characterized as "a systematic attack … coordinated by an international education privatization agenda, bankrolled by billionaire philanthropists … and aided by the departments of education at the federal, state, and local level."
Response to this series of stunning attacks and political reversals has overall been mild to muted. The usual groups have told journalists where and how they disagree with the antis, but there's been no outcry of support for the agenda items under attack, and certainly not from any political leaders, prominent columnists, etc.
This week, however, by marked contrast, the atmosphere inside the edu-bubble was set alight by – wait for it – John Oliver. Yes, that John Oliver, British comedian and host of a faux HBO news show, who did a "takedown" of charter schools that was quickly and correctly dismissed by Nick Gillespie of Reason as "clever, glib and uninformed." From the reactions of education reformers, however, you'd think Oliver was Edward R. Murrow, and that the expose had appeared on "60 Minutes," not a late-night comedy show.
The National Alliance of Public Charter schools issued a defensive statement contending the Oliver's piece was "not representative of charter schools nationwide." The ed reform news site The 74 ran pieces bemoaning that the selective anecdotes in Oliver's negative spiel ignored "the vast majority of charter teachers and administrators go to work each morning prepared and determined to do right by their students." On social media, the gnashing of teeth and rending of flesh threatened to reach apocalyptic levels. The American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess spoke for nearly no one when he tweeted that "It's hard to convey how little I worry about Oliver's views."
I'm with Hess. Armchair psychology is a dangerous game, but my best hunch is that a kind of moral panic has set in among reformers (on both sides of the aisle but particularly on the left) who have suffered – and suffered mostly in silence – a series of stinging rebukes from those, particularly in the civil rights community, who ought to be their most stalwart champions, yet who cannot be comfortably challenged. It's deeply odd, if you think about it: reform, long marked by a pugnacious, crusading rhetorical style may be losing both its will to fight and its ability to differentiate between genuine threats and mere irritants.
As my Fordham colleague Chester Finn recently observed, longstanding bipartisan support for the education reform agenda has collapsed: "As Democrats pander to teachers' unions and minority grievances and Republicans focus on social issues and culture wars, little energy remains for school reform." The Wall Street Journal recently noted that Hillary Clinton "used to support charters. Now she's for the union agenda." Left-leaning reformers are clearly reluctant to defend their agenda or push back against their standard bearer, let alone throw a bone to the lifeless campaign of Donald Trump, who for all his manifold faults, did give a speech last week that argued for "school choice, merit pay for teachers, and to end the tenure policies that hurt good teachers and reward bad teachers."
Thoughtful arguments can be made about the efficacy of these and other elements of the reform agenda over the last several decades. But if there's one clear, unambiguous victory that reformers can rightly claim, it's urban charter schools, which, in the main, have served How John Oliver and Charter Schools Show Education Reform Lost Its Mojo | US News Opinion: