Matt Barnum this week reported on an extraordinary private meeting
of many of the Big Guns of reformsterdom.It happened back in March; only just now are people talking about it.
Arne Duncan, John King, TFA, DFER, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, KIPP– the twenty-five gathered folks included all these and more. Barnum reported that Shavar Jeffries (DFER) organized “in part” the meet, which says a bit about his ability to gather folks. DFER apparently still has juice.
The headline from the meeting was Arne Duncan’s call for charter operators to refuse funding from the Trump/DeVos department, calling it “blood money.”
Which is an odd choice. Blood money is money you get because someone has died, and the funding system for charters beloved by Arne Duncan absolutely depended on getting money by taking it from public schools, even if it killed them. Duncan’s USED was, if anything, more pro-charter than DeVos, who much prefers vouchers. And when it comes to public education, the major difference between Duncan and DeVos was that Duncan at least pretended to say the right thing, while DeVos wears her disdain on her sleeve. But Duncan is not suggesting the moratorium because of any loyalty to public education. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe the somebody who has died, the murdered party that Duncan wants to avenge, is the federal education bureaucracy.
Not, says Barnum, that any charters are considering Duncan’s idea [Update: at least two of the chains did not take a position at all]. So it’s Arne doing what he has often done– telling other people how they should conduct their business, even though he has no skin in their game.
But what was really intriguing about the account of the meeting was its purpose.
The overarching question at the March discussion, organized in part by Jeffries, was how education reformers should respond to the Trump and DeVos administration, including on issues beyond education.
And that’s because…
The left-of-center charter school advocates who held sway in the Obama administration have a complicated relationship with DeVos, who backs charter schools but also private-school vouchers and, as a member of the Trump administration, is viewed skeptically by many.
In other words, they were wrestling with the problem that some reformsters have struggled with since it Trump won the election– how to distance themselves from people who are politically linked to the wrong party and the wrong end of the left-right continuum, but whose policies are completely in alignment. As long as these nominal Democrats were led by nominal Democrats in a nominally Democratic administration, they could go ahead and pursue fundamentally conservative education policies. But now DC is occupied by something kind of like conservative Republicans– and when it comes to education they want all the same things.
This should not be a surprise. Let’s go back the DFER founder Whitney Tilson quote about why it’sDemocrats for Education Reform:
“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”
This meeting circled around the distinction we seem to be going with “progressive Democrat” reformsters are doing it for the social justice, but “conservative GOP” reformsters are doing it because they love the free market. I suppose on some level the distinction matters, but the actions they want to pursue– eroding public education and the teaching profession in order to privatize the entire system– are identical, and ultimately, if you and another person insist on punching me in the face, I’m not sure I care a whole lot about the difference in your rationales. Particularly when, as I believe is the case in ed reform, behind both punchers is another guy who doesn’t care about either rationale– he’s just bet on the fight and he wants to make a buck.
So it’s just swell that Arne Duncan is so outraged at what’s going on in his old department, but if he is imagining that there’s some sort of huge disconnect and difference between the policies of his department and the policies of DeVos. In my punching analogy, Duncan is the guy who beats you up relentlessly for seven years, and then when some new kid comes in and kicks you, says, “Can you believe what she did! That’s outrageous. Are you going to take that?!”
As Diane Ravitch has pointed out, DeVos rode to Washington on a thoroughfare leveled and paved by Democrats. For them to have their little private meetings where they clutch pearls about DeVosian awfulness is either monumental cynicism or stunning delusion. Either way, Duncan better take a look at all those checks he’s cashing as a sought-after consultant based on his time in DC dismantling public education, and he’d think a little harder before he starts bemoaning blood money again.