In her economic speech today, Hillary Clinton spoke extensively about policies where her party agrees: inequality, social opportunity, public investment, and family-friendly workplace policy. Clinton’s remarks about primary education were almost literally a placeholder. (Those comments, in their entirety: “And in the coming weeks and months, I’ll lay out specific steps to improve our schools.”) Clinton’s position on primary education is the most significant outstanding domestic-policy question of the Democratic primary campaign, precisely because it is something upon which her party disagrees, often bitterly.
For all the attention to disagreements between the party’s centrist and populist wings, which Matthew Yglesias runs through ably, the two visions overlap heavily. The moderates focus their attention on using government to reduce inequality after the market has run its course. Populists want to use government to shape the distribution of incomes before taxes and transfers. The argument between the two is more academic than practical, because both camps favor elements of one another’s preferred policy goals. The centrists support a higher minimum wage, full employment, and opposing Republican plans to roll back collective bargaining. And the populists are happy to endorse a higher Earned Income Tax Credit, taxing the rich, and public investment. What makes the debate almost entirely academic is that, with Republicans in control of the House and highly unlikely to lose it under a Democratic president, neither the moderate nor the populist liberal policies stand a chance of enactment.
Education, on the other hand, is an issue where action remains possible, because the president can use administrative waivers to drive reform, or use the threat of waivers as a lever to force Congress to act. It’s also an issue where two Democratic camps propose to move in diametric directions. The Obama administration has embraced the education-reform movement. Reformers believe that new educational structures have the potential to produce dramatic gains for poor children, and can point to spectacular results in a small number of highly effective new urban charter schools. The reformers have concentrated on the importance of teacher quality — which, research shows, varies enormously and has a very large and (therefore) variable impact on student performance. The reformers believe in creating measures of teacher performance, using a mix of tests that measure student learning against an expected baseline, and classroom observation, and to pay them accordingly, including giving schools the ability to fire the most ineffective teachers, which is practically impossible under many union contracts.
Teachers unions and their allies object to this entire line of thinking. In its ideologically purest form, the left-wing critique believes the achievement gap between rich and poor students cannot be reduced without eliminating entrenched poverty. When presented with charter schools that reduce or close the achievement gap, they charge them with faking their numbers or teaching to the test. The more radical elements of this movement have made vituperative attacks against the Obama administration and formed alliances with the tea party, which distrusts testing, national standards, and federal intervention in what it regards as a properly local matter.
In this context, Clinton is treading carefully. On Saturday, she received the endorsement from the American Federation of Teachers, where she said, “It is just dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats for all of society’s problems. Where I come from, teachers are the solution. And I strongly believe that unions are part of the solution, too.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page holds this statement up as evidence that Clinton opposes school reform. (“Translation: Mrs. Clinton will send unions more money without hassling them on tenure and charter schools.”)
It’s actually not at all clear this is the case. Hillary Clinton’s first major policy achievement was her campaign to establish accountability-based school reform in Arkansas that placed her directly at odds with the teacher unions, in 1983. It’s true that, meeting with the AFT Saturday, she framed the issue in the pro-teacher way unions prefer. But of course she doesn’t want to scapegoat teachers for all of society’s problems. Nobody wants to scapegoat teachers for all of society’s problems. Some parts of the unions and their allies insist that the Obama administration is doing exactly that, but Clinton certainly didn’t say so. To rhetorically push off against teacher scapegoating doesn’t make you an opponent of education reform any more than denying that the government can solve all our problems makes you a libertarian.
The AFT itself presents a more complicated political case than you might expect. Its president, Randi Weingarten, is a pragmatic figure who has often compromised with reformers. (Steven Brill’s Class Warfare, a staunchly pro-reform account of the education wars, suggests Weingarten take over as New York City schools chancellor, in the hope that she could reconcile unions to reform, Nixon-to-China style.) For her moderation, Weingarten has often had to fend off more radical forms of resistance. The National Education Association has attacked education reform more vociferously than Weingarten has. It’s entirely possible that Weingarten’s early endorsement of Clinton may be designed in part to lock in a decision some of her supporters may have otherwise challenged.
But Clinton herself is keeping her education-reform policies close to the vest. She discussed the importance of expanded early learning, which is both important and a matter of party consensus. One Clintonite explained that she is waiting for Congress, which is trying to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, a Bush-era reform proposal badly in need of revision. “We are closely watching the NCLB debate,” a senior policy adviser told me, “and looking forward to building on that debate as the campaign progresses.” In 2008, Clinton and Barack Obama both kept their positions on education reform as vague as possible throughout, to the point where neither the reformers or their opponents had any idea which camp would prevail until Obama named his Education Secretary. Clinton may try to do the same thing again.