EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
What does it mean to be progressive on education issues? Eight years ago, when President Obama came into office, this was a hotly contested question. The Democratic Party was split into two camps. On one side were union allies, researchers, and policy-makers who argued that children’s academic performance would only improve with better-trained teachers, smaller class sizes, greater access to early-childhood education, and stronger antipoverty efforts. On the other side was the bipartisan education-reform movement. Its major achievement was No Child Left Behind, the law signed by George W. Bush in 2002, which required annual standardized testing in reading and math. By 2008, this camp was loudly promoting the idea that test scores should be used to evaluate and fire teachers. The movement’s leaders were crusading school superintendents like Joel Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, as well as philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad. They wanted to increase the number of charter schools (which are generally not unionized), and they blamed union protections and school-district policies—not family poverty—for the achievement gap between poor and middle-class kids.
Obama rose to prominence promising to bridge political divisions. When he announced in December 2008 that he would appoint Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan as his secretary of education, the president-elect seemed to be staying true to form. In Chicago, Duncan had experimented with using student test scores to determine teacher pay and which schools to shut down, angering the local teachers union. Yet he was also a big proponent of quality early-childhood education, a rare source of consensus between the traditional and reformer camps.
Once in office, Obama and Duncan funded some programs that unified groups across the progressive spectrum, such as improving the quality and size of state pre-K programs and renovating school buildings. But by and large, when it came to K–12 policy, the administration’s first six years were defined by an aggressive reform agenda that left the traditional camp, especially the teachers unions, playing defense. Only since 2014 has there been a détente in what many, myself included, termed the “teacher wars.” Grassroots activism from the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as from tens of thousands of parents who opted their children out of standardized testing, helped shift the terms of the debate. We now talk almost as much about school discipline, unequal school funding, and school segregation as we do about low test scores and teacher tenure. It’s a profound change in rhetoric.
Had Hillary Clinton been elected president, new public policy could have flowed from this shift in priorities. But instead, Donald Trump is returning to ideas about education reform that now sound stale. He has chosen Betsy DeVos, a Republican fund-raiser and school-choice philanthropist, as his secretary of education. DeVos’s passion is redirecting public-school funding to vouchers that parents can use to pay for private-school tuition—a strategy that has little track record of improving student achievement. The holistic school-improvement agenda that President Obama embraced over the past two years is now on life support.
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In March 2009, Obama appeared before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to announce his signature education initiative, Race to the Top. “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents; it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom,” he said. “Let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching.”