Obama’s Education Legacy Has Been Forgotten. Now He Has to Save It.

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Then-President Barack Obama chats with students during a visit to Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2009.

On February 17, 2009, Barack Obama signed one of the most sweeping federal education reforms in American history. You may not have heard of it. His program was a federal grant, called “Race to the Top,” which was doled out on a competitive basis. If states wanted the money, they needed to implement reforms to their education systems: build methods to assess the growth of students and the success of schools, to recruit and reward effective teachers, and to turn around the lowest-performing schools. The total amount of money in the grants, $4.3 billion, was relatively modest, but because it was being dangled in the midst of a historic recession that cratered state budgets, governors were desperate for the cash and eagerly carried out reforms in order to get it. The result was “a marked surge” in school reform, rooted in studying data and spreading best practices. Among other reforms encouraged by Race to the Top, Washington, D.C., adopted a new teacher contract that raised salaries across the board while adding performance pay, and New York City increased its allotment of public charter schools, to cite just two notable examples.

Why did this historic measure attract so little attention? One reason is that it was tucked into a $787 billion fiscal stimulus bill, which was drafted at a time the global economy was hanging by a thread. Another reason is that, since the policy split both parties, nobody had an incentive to talk about it. Teachers’ unions hated the entire premise of the reforms, which spurred states to adopt policies that gave more money to the most effective teachers and allowed schools to replace the least effective ones. Obama was loath to highlight a policy that aggravated a constituency he needed to motivate Democratic voters, so he rarely mentioned his reforms.

And the unions themselves didn’t want to provoke a public split with a president their rank-and-file members adored, so they concentrated all their anger on Obama’s Education secretaries, focusing their ire first on Arne Duncan, and then his successor John King, as though Obama himself were unaware of the reforms his Cabinet officials were carrying out on his behalf. And Republicans didn’t want to credit Obama with moving to the center. On the rare occasions conservatives paid any attention to education policy, they tended to reflexively dismiss Obama as a lackey of the teachers’ unions.

As long as Obama occupied the White House, though, teachers’ unions had to hold back from a full-scale assault on his education policies, and Obama had no need for a high-profile public defense.

Now that he has departed the scene, the politics have changed. The Obama administration is no longer the public face of liberal education reform. Instead, its opponents are attempting to attach that policy to Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Molly Hensley-Clancy reports that teachers’ unions plan “to tie supporting charter schools to the two people who are perhaps the most hated by the party’s base: Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos” and “to push candidates to vocally oppose many forms of charter school expansion, as well as things like private school vouchers, betting that the Democratic base will be mobilized by a desire to oppose policies that Trump and DeVos have strongly supported.” Obama’s critics on the left can now try to dismantle Obama’s education reforms by branding them as Trump’s policies.

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In fact, they are not the same thing. There are three broad approaches to education policy that vie for influence. Left-wing policy supports neighborhood-based public schools, opposes any methods to measure or differentiate the performance of teachers or schools, and argues instead for alternatives to school reform like increased anti-poverty spending or urging middle-class parents to enroll their children in high-poverty schools. Conservative education policy believes market competition holds the key to improvement. Conservatives support publicly funded tuition vouchers to send low-income students to private schools, and want to open up charter schools with as little regulation as possible, allowing the invisible hand of the market to determine which schools work best.

The liberal reform position sits between the two. Liberal education reformers, unlike their critics on the left, believe charter schools play an important role, and also generally believe that all schools need to have more ability to reward excellent teachers and fire low-performing ones. The effects are especially pronounced on low-income children. Affluent public school students who are assigned ineffective teachers can draw upon family resources — their parents’ educations, or tutoring — to overcome the disadvantage. Poor students assigned to ineffective teachers suffer permanent losses. Since traditional union contracts make it virtually impossible to replace an ineffective teacher, liberal education reformers and conservatives alike disagree with teachers’ unions and their allies, which have generally treated any kind of reform as an existential threat.

But liberal reformers also differ from conservatives in important ways. While supporting public charter schools, liberals generally oppose private school vouchers. Private schools, unlike charter schools, have almost total autonomy in running their school, and are free to admit only those students they want. Charter schools are accountable to publicly run boards and cannot select their student body except by random lottery. (My wife is an education policy analyst who believes in this enough to work at one.)

Liberal education reformers also believe that the market alone is not enough to ensure charter school quality, and that charter schools need strong oversight boards, which can close down poor-performing charters. While urban students overall do better in charter schools than in traditional public schools — a conclusion found by rigorous studies that account for any potential differences in the students going in — the gap varies tremendously from place to place. Massachusetts, a strongly regulated charter network, has one of the highest-performing charter systems in the country. Urban students who win the lottery for a charter spot in Massachusetts learn far more than those who don’t. (Lotteries, which are used when charter enrollees exceed available slots, also create perfect natural experiments between identical pools of students, and, hence, solid conclusions for measuring policies.) Charter advocates in Massachusetts sought to increase the number of urban students who can enroll in charters, and the state had several well-qualified charter operators eager to open new schools, but both efforts failed in the legislature and in a referendum after a fierce campaign by teachers’ unions.

The Massachusetts case illustrates that the left opposes charters and reform in every case, regardless of how clearly they can demonstrate better outcomes for poor students. Michigan, whose charter system DeVos helped shape before joining Trump’s Cabinet, illustrates the conservative stance. Michigan’s system faced harsh criticism from liberal education reformers for its lax oversight and, consequently, unimpressive performance. DeVos favors charter schools as a second-best-alternative to her preferred policy of private school vouchers, which have proven too politically toxic to voters, despite fervent support from DeVos and other conservative activists.

It is likewise telling that conservatives continue to support private school vouchers even in the face of clear evidence that they do not yield better outcomes. Conservatives differ from liberal reform advocates not only in the specific policy solution they support, but in the overall approach they bring to the question. Conservatives support “choice” not merely as a tool to coax better outcomes but as a moral framework that does not depend on any empirical outcome. The right philosophically believes students deserve to be freed from educational bureaucracy, just as the left philosophically opposes subjecting school administrators or teachers to any kind of competitive pressure.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting philosophical first principles dictate your position; Indeed, supporting whatever system helps kids learn more is also a subjective moral choice. But it simply is an observable reality that the liberal reform position is far more sensitive to empirical evidence, and able to shape its preferences in response to data, than either of the other two positions.

Another similarity between the left-wing and right-wing positions is that they both tend to rhetorically collapse a three-sided debate into two. Conservatives define their opponents as opponents of all reforms. The left defines its opposition as to “privatization.” Both of them conflate the kinds of reforms supported by liberal reforms (regulated charters) with those supported by conservatives (vouchers, loosely or unregulated charters).

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The left’s strategy, as telegraphed to reporters like Hensley-Clancy, is to drive Democrats away from liberal reform by treating it as identical to the conservative agenda. DeVos is a helpful bogeyman for this purpose. Not only is she identified with a deeply loathed president, but she has distinct right-wing ties and she displayed a woeful lack of policy knowledge at her confirmation hearings. No Trump Cabinet nominee generated as fervent opposition as DeVos.

As it turned out, her tenure has proven much less consequential than her opponents predicted. Despite fears she would “destroy public education,” DeVos’s K–12 agenda has proven almost completely ineffectual. Changing primary education from Washington is hard. It is not like changing health care or environmental policy or some other policy that depends heavily on a federal role. The federal government accounts for only 7 percent of total education spending. You can’t do much to alter primary education without some money to spend and a lot of cleverness. Obama had both. Trump and DeVos have neither.

The failure of DeVos’s radical agenda to materialize has not bothered many members of her party. Indeed, many Republicans don’t even bother trying to change the education system at the federal level. Their goal is to reduce whatever small leverage Washington already has. This objective can place them on the same side as the unions, which fear federal power and its ability to promote reform. During the last administration, teachers’ unions were forming low-key alliances with Congressional Republicans to fight Obama proposals that would have directed more funding to poor public schools.

The cooperation between unions and Republicans was not some anomaly. It reflected a common opposition to activist federal government, which was the only force powerful enough to upset tenure arrangements unions have decided to prioritize. Unions that oppose subjecting their members to any form of measurement joined forces with anti-government activists on the right to protest Common Core and testing. Left-wing opponents of education reform like Diane Ravitch were framing their case in nakedly right-wing terms. “The issue today,” she wrote, “is between those who want to federalize education policy and those who want to maintain state and local control of the public schools,” in keeping with their belief that, “the federal government is the enemy of public schools.” Pause to note the oddity of anti-government, pro-local-control arguments parading under the banner of progressive thought.

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So it is ironic that the left, which has made right-wing anti-government arguments, and made common cause with Republicans to scale back federal control over education, has settled on a public message of attacking liberal reformers as crypto-allies of the GOP. Alas, the message could work anyway. Few people, even few political activists, know much about the workings of education policy. They do know about Trump. The left is not wrong to believe it might tie liberal education reform to the Republican administration, and thereby sink it.

There is, however, one person who has the power to change that: Barack Obama. The former president has nearly universal support among his own party, and he has the platform to command attention to issues he wants to highlight. The people who want to dismantle Obama’s education legacy can only exploit Obama’s absence from the public stage if Obama stays absent from the public stage. If instead Obama decides to speak out for his agenda, and to create room for Democrats to sustain his agenda, he’ll have enormous leverage to do so. Obama could make the case to teachers that they would be better served by unions that prioritize higher pay rather than job security for the least competent members. And he can can explain that progressives should support an active federal role in education, not local control that has perpetrated mediocrity and segregation.

At some point, it now seems, he will have no other choice. A better future for millions of low-income students is going to depend on it.

Obama Has to Save His Forgotten Education Legacy