“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery,” wrote Horace Mann in 1848, when the great proponent of public education outlined a premise that remains at the heart of every progressive vision for this country.
Unfortunately, 167 years after Mann made his case, many politicians who position as “progressive” are insufficiently committed to the cause of public education. Some of the crudest education cuts and “reforms” have been implemented by Democrats who often go as far—even further—than conservative Republicans in embracing the wrong thinking of those who would undermine public education with “charter” experiments, voucher schemes and privatization plans.
It is too simplistic to assume that the debate over public education plays out only between Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. In fact, there are important debates over education that need to be had within the Democratic Party. Until Democrats are solidly supportive of public education, it is difficult to see how they will effectively counter Republicans like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who have aligned themselves with the billionaire proponents of an “education reform” movement that is all about deforming and diminishing the promise of the great equalizer.
This debate has already erupted in a number of cities and states. In 2014, for instance, much of the support for law professor Zephyr Teachout’s exceptionally strong Democratic primary challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came from teachers and their allies in the burgeoning movement to defend public education.
Now, an ever clearer test is playing out in Chicago.
The lines of division could not be starker in next Tuesday’s Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff contest. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an advocate of high-stakes testing and the charter-school “reforms” favored by conservative Republicans and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, faces an energetic challenge from Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, an outspoken champion of teachers and neighborhood schools who has aligned with progressive unions and grassroots activist groups.