The Democratic Party is proposing a big overhaul of its official position on education, one which would give a huge victory to teachers unions while also repudiating almost all of President Barack Obama’s legacy on K-12 schooling.
The Obama administration has long aggravated teachers unions by favoring education reform policies, such as tying teacher evaluations to test scores and expanding the use of charter schools. In response, they have often been muted in their support for the administration, and even demanded that Obama fire Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. More recently, teachers booed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the National Education Association’s annual conference when she said positive words about charter schools.
In a sudden coup over the weekend, the group drafting the national Democratic platform prior to the party’s convention substantially altered the party’s rhetoric on education to reject reformist pushes and instead embrace the traditional, more pro-union party line.
In a first draft of the platform that was revealed Monday, the party declares that it opposes all for-profit charter schools, and that non-profit charters “should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools.” It also declares that charters should be required to have the same proportion of non-white, disabled, and English-language learners as public schools.
The new platform also declares the party’s support for “democratically-governed” public schools, which would undermine the current system in which charter schools are governed by a board of directors.
In addition, the new platform would dramatically alter the party’s position on standardized tests. The Obama administration has endorsed using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and schools, and it has pursued penalties for states that have too many students opt out of tests. It has often enjoyed support from civil rights groups in this endeavor. They argue standardized tests make it harder for politicians to ignore the failing condition of minority-heavy schools.
The new platform largely rejects Obama’s policies. It condemns “high-stakes” tests that “unfairly label students of color … as failing,” and repudiates the use of tests to evaluate schools or teachers.
The platform changes are a huge concession to teachers unions, which historically have been a big force in the party, but have been relatively marginalized during the Obama administration. Unsurprisingly, they have been vocal in their praise.
“The public education plank in the Democratic platform represents a refreshing sea change in its approach to public education [and] to the students we serve,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in a statement.
But Democratic reformers are apoplectic, accusing the party of turning back the clock and abandoning progress under Obama.
“This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Shavar Jeffries, president of the Democrats for Education Reform, said in a statement.
Jeffries said the Democratic platform drafting committee had “inexplicably” allowed the process to be “hijacked” by foes of school reform.
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