Diane Ravitch argues in the Wall Street Journal today that the Republican Party is faced with an “educational dilemma” because it’s always been the party of “local control” that “respects the common sense of the people back home.” However, now it’s caught in a trap of “supporting almost every effort by Democrats to expand the power of the federal government over the nation’s classroom.”
In other words, the GOP’s problem has less to do with the strengths or weaknesses of national educational reform than the parlous course of cooperating with Democrats. It’s not about schools. It’s about party perception.
Now, in all fairness, the esteemed education historian claims that initiatives like No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the Obama Administration’s support for innovative teacher training like Teach for America are “virtually the opposite of what high-performing nations do.” (A specious argument, but one we won’t take on here.)
However, her key argument is that the GOP’s support of “Democratic” educational initiatives effaces a stalwart and necessary dichotomy between the two parties.
Ravitch is missing the point. One of the most exciting and elevating pieces of America’s growing consensus on fixing our schools is that it is bi-partisan, even post-partisan if you will. One of the most energetic groups in education is Democrats for Education Reform, as post-partisan a group as you’ll find these days. Jay Matthews recalls an event at 2008 Democratic National Convention organized by DFER where over 500 people cheered for the very ideas that Ravitch disparages and hooted at traditionally Democratic sacred cows like teacher unions. From Matthews’ account:
The Democratic supporters of reform largely (but not exclusively) consist of urban minority leaders, including Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Adrian Fenty, Cory Booker, Kevin Chavous, Al Sharpton, and Marion Bary. Go ahead and make all the Sharpton and Bary jokes you like, but this (mostly) minority defection of urban Democrats from union orthodoxy is like a political earthquake that will have important implications for future reform politics…But if the reform movement has traded some conservatives for the new generation of minority Democratic leadership, I think we’ve come out ahead.
The whole point is that the education reform movement is not Republican vs. Democrat. It’s both. That’s one of the mainstays of its strength. Ravitch’s column festers in an anachronistic dichotomy that a new generation of education reformers have left behind.