It’s been a nerve-rattling couple weeks for those of us who identify as pro-reform Democrats.
It all started with Arne Duncan’s surprise announcement that he was stepping down as Secretary of Education at the end of the year. As President Obama noted, “Arne’s done more to bring our educational system — sometimes kicking and screaming — into the 21st century more than anyone else.” Duncan’s willingness to push the nation’s public schools to improve, in spite of the political headwinds, made him a hero to reformers, and understandably, it’s hard to see him go.
The very next day, the National Education Association (NEA) announced it was endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, prompting U.S. News and others to speculate whether Clinton could end up being “the teachers unions’ savior.” And Richard Whitmire only added to reformers’ anxiety with his column in USA Today warning of an impending schism among Democrats over the direction of education policy after Obama.
But the kicker came on Wednesday with Michael Grunwald’s article in Politico reporting that the Democratic presidential candidates had decided to opt-out of Campbell Brown’s education forum in Iowa later this month. Brown, who has emerged as a vocal education reform advocate in recent years, is loathed by the teachers unions. She told Grunwald “that operatives from several campaigns told her privately that the unions had urged them to stay away.”
The Reaction: Outrage, Maybe Some Soul-Searching
Not surprisingly, reform-oriented Dems [myself included: see below] reacted with outrage to the news that Democratic candidates caved to the demands of the teachers unions, especially when six Republican contenders managed to show up for Brown’s first education forum in New Hampshire back in August.
— Peter C. Cook (@petercook) October 7, 2015
For example, Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the American Federation for Children, told Grunwald that the candidates’ refusal to attend Brown’s education summit amounted to a betrayal of the party’s base: “[F]or the candidates to refuse even to discuss these issues, I think it’s insulting to the Democratic base of black and brown voters.” Over at Education Post, reform advocate Erika Sanzi echoed those sentiments, saying:
“Democrats have a proclivity for calling themselves the party of the people, the only ones who care about the “little guy.” Well, lots of “little guys” need them to step up on education and talk about how they will work to fix a public educational system that is not working for a huge percentage of America’s children and families.”
On the other hand, I can’t help but imagine that privately, many reformers were asking themselves: If the Democratic Candidates are willing to cave to the unions’ demands on Campbell Brown, what about accountability, charter schools, testing, etc.? Admittedly, it’s scary to envision the education policy pendulum swinging back in the other direction, aided by a Democrat in the White House sympathetic to the teachers unions. Is the candidates’ snub of Campbell Brown a harbinger of things to come?
Should Blue Reformers Be Worried? Not Yet.
To start, a disclaimer: I’m working from the assumption Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. Yes, I know there are plenty of folks out there feeling the Bern these days, but unless Clinton becomes embroiled in a career-ending scandal in the next six months (and no, emails don’t qualify), it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Clinton fails to clinch the nomination.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I believe the candidates’ decision to skip Campbell Brown’s event most likely boils down to bad timing and political calculus by the Clinton campaign.
Let me explain: Clinton is naturally focused on locking in the Democratic nomination as quickly as possible so she can focus her firepower on the Republicans. As Politico noted earlier this summer, part of Clinton’s strategy for doing that is securing the endorsement of the AFL-CIO (and the substantial political organization and PAC money that comes with it) by first winning over the individual unions that comprise the federation. One of the biggest is the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which announced its endorsement of Clinton, amid some controversy, back in July.
Likewise, Clinton’s endorsement by the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union and an organization that can also bring considerable money and manpower to support her presidential bid, further strengthens Clinton’s position as the Democratic frontrunner. However, as with AFT’s endorsement, there was an unusual amount of dissension among NEA’s state affiliates, as well the rank-and-file over the decision to back Clinton. As one Massachusetts union activist told Politico back in September, “Even if she says things that today sound supportive, she’s not going to be a steadfast friend of organized labor. We don’t know she’s going to be the ally that’s going to stand with our legislative agenda.”
With sizable factions in both NEA and AFT skeptical of Clinton’s commitment to their agenda, it’s likely Clinton’s campaign decided that attending Campbell Brown’s event would only deepen the divide over Hillary within the unions, and as a result, declined the invitation. With the frontrunner bowing out, the other major Democratic candidates – already trailing far behind Clinton in the polls – then followed suit.
Thus, while the candidates’ decision to opt-out of Campbell Brown’s education forum is disappointing, it isn’t cause for pro-reform Democrats to panic. This is politics. We’ve seen Clinton downplay her reform positions to woo the teachers unions before, during her last presidential campaign in 2007. Moreover, Clinton’s comments on education during the current campaign have tended to focus on less controversial issues like raising teacher pay and increasing early education funding. What Clinton hasn’t done is take a stand against the education policies embraced by the Obama Administration over the past seven years.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine Clinton, with her New Democrat pedigree and track record of support for reform policies, embracing the teachers unions’ prerogatives as president. Of course, that doesn’t mean reformers shouldn’t keep the pressure on Clinton and other Democratic leaders over the next several months, but we also shouldn’t read too much into recent events, either.