Trump Is Vulnerable On Education. Do Democrats Care?

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Trump Is Vulnerable On Education. Do Democrats Care?

Donald Trump meets with billionaire Betsy Devos at his Bedminster, New Jersey estate on November 19, 2016. (Photo: a katz / Shutterstock)

A string of special election defeats has left Democrats bewildered at how they can continue to lose against a party led by the most unpopular president ever.

Seasoned campaign analysts and political observers have criticized Democrats for not having a clear enough message, other than “we’re not Trump.” That criticism usually focuses on Democrats’ poor messaging on economic and healthcare issues.

Democrats haven’t talked about education issues well either.

“It was actually Democrats who helped pave the road for [Betsy] DeVos to take the helm of the Education Department,” writes education journalist Valerie Strauss on her blog at the Washington Post, referring to President Trump’s nomination of a billionaire critic of public schools to lead the nation’s federal department responsible for public schools.

As Democrats, over the years, pulled away from their historical support for public schools and classroom teachers, Strauss explains, they gradually embraced many of the tenets of Republican “reform” that emphasizes accountability and standardized “outcomes” rather than opportunity and equity.

But as Democrats retool their messages about the economy and healthcare to more sharply differentiate their party from the party of Donald Trump, will they cleave from the Republican education platform too?

There’s new evidence they should.

Voters Want Increased Spending, Not Choice

A new survey of Republican and Democratic voters by Hart Research, for the American Federation of Teachers, finds that a clear majority of voters are not in agreement with the education agenda Trump and DeVos are prescribing for the country.

While Trump and DeVos push for a retreat in federal spending on education and a redirection of funds from public schools to privately operated charter schools and voucher-funded private schools, the vast majority of Democrats and a clear plurality of Republicans want to do the exact opposite.

Delving into specific survey results, Casey Quinlan at Think Progress writes, “a significant number of Republicans and Trump voters” are opposed to the Trump administration’s education budget cuts, especially the cuts to services benefiting students with disabilities and school serving low-income kids.

“Public education is a priority for voters, and fully half of all voters identify education as the part of the federal budget for which they would most strongly oppose cuts,” write survey authors Geoff Garin and Guy Molyneux in their report of the findings.

“Only a quarter of Republican voters say the federal government is overspending on public education,” they report, while 42 percent of Republicans believe the federal government spends too little. Large majorities of both Democratic voters (83 percent) and independent voters (55 percent) say  federal spending on public education is insufficient.

On the issue of redirecting public money to charters and vouchers, clear majorities of voters of all stripes don’t want to see public school supports sacrificed for the sake of more “choice.”

For Trump and DeVos to take money from programs for high-poverty schools and redirect the money to charter schools and voucher programs is especially objectionable to all voters. Seventy-six percent say that priority is unacceptable.

The survey’s findings overwhelmingly lead to the conclusion that Democrats should distance themselves from Trump’s education agenda for the same reasons they should separate from Republican extremism on healthcare and the economy: It makes good political sense.

There’s evidence some Democratic candidates may be starting to get that.

What Happened In Virginia

In an analysis of the recent Democratic party primary for Virginia governor, Rachel Levy notes, in her post at The Progressive, that the opposing candidates’ stands on public education may have made a crucial difference in the race.

Levy is a Virginia-based blogger, public school parent, and doctoral student on education. [Disclosure: I also write for The Progressive.]

The contest between current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former Virginia Congressional representative Tom Perriello was mist-cast, according to Levey, as a “Hillary-versus-Bernie” face-off simply because Perriello enjoyed endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, while Northam was backed by a majority of state-level Virginia Democratic party stalwarts.

However, on the issue of education, Northam was much more representative of the Democratic party’s historic stance on education, by evidence of his long-time support of public schools and his endorsement from the state teachers’ association.

Perriello, on the other hand, had courted the interests and backing of “market-based reformers that the Obama administration, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan favored,” Levey writes. “Yes, these were Democrats, but ones who have largely turned their backs on public education.”

Also Levy notes, Perriello had supported charter school expansion in the state and had received praise from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), “an anti-union group founded by a group of hedge fund managers who favor” the Republicans’ reform agenda.

Levy argues that the “wariness” Virginia Democrats now have about the reform agenda persuaded both candidates to “distance themselves from any perceived support for charter schools,” but the fact that Northam prevailed may have been a result, in part, to the perceived differences in where the candidates stood on the issue.

“[Perriello’] loss reflects a disconnect between public education defenders and otherwise-progressive politicians who have not yet gotten the memo that defending public schools is a key value for progressive voters,” she concludes.

What Democrats Should Do

That’s good news for public schools, and bad news for candidates who are at odds with voters on the issues.

Republicans have achieved great success behind their drumbeat of an end to government. But they’ve yet to experience, for the most part, how that agenda bears out  when it starts doing serious damage to local schools in the rural and suburban communities they represent.

Those consequences, along with the unpopular education agenda of the Trump administration, may make Republican incumbents more vulnerable than they’ve been in decades.

Democrats, on the other hand, say government works, but only when it’s focused on the interests of We The People, rather than just the wealthy and powerful. Democratic candidates can back that sort of talk up by, among other things, supporting our local public schools.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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