The Next Democratic President Will Be Terrible on Education Policy
Flint debate reveals a party mired in retrograde '70s-era trade-union liberalism
Democrats are congratulating each other for having a "deeply substantive" presidential debate last night in Flint, Michigan. "Clinton And Sanders Show Republicans What A Real Debate Looks Like," ran Jonathan Cohn's headline at The Huffington Post. "The end result," wrote MSNBC's Steve Benen, "was two candidates who obviously take their responsibilities and their platforms seriously."
It's certainly true that there weren't any dick jokes last night. But it's also true that much of the actual substance being discussed was some of the most warmed-over, non-factual, trade-unionist liberalism since the 1970s. There was the knee-jerk opposition to international trade agreements, the open threats to corporations who dare move manufacturing plants, the anti-scientific hostility to an energy source that is contributing directly to the reduction of carbon levels, and one of the most dispiriting exchanges on public education this side of a Bill De Blasio press conference.
After frontrunner Hillary Clinton trial-ballooned the deeply unfortunate (if revealing) notion of federal "education SWAT teams," CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked a very direct and clarifying question: "Secretary Clinton, you've been endorsed by two of the biggest teachers' unions. There's an awful lot of great teachers in this country. It's an incredibly difficult job, one of the most difficult jobs there is. But union rules often make it impossible fire bad teachers, and that means disadvantaged kids are sometimes taught by the least qualified. Do you think unions protect bad teachers?"
Bolding mine. Clinton, who has built a long career advocating every government intrusion under the sun in the name of protecting the children, ignored this relevant question entirely, then pivoted to the wholly made-up bogeyman of teacher-hating austerians:
You know, I am proud to have been endorsed by the AFT and the NEA, and I've had very good relationship with both unions, with their leadership. And we've really candid conversations because we are going to have to take a look at—what do we need in the 21st century to really involve families, to help kids who have more problems than just academic problems?
A lot of what has happened—and honestly it really pains me—a lot of people have [been] blaming and scapegoating teachers because they don't want to put the money into the school system that deserve the support that comes from the government doing its job.
This is embarrassing, child-damaging nonsense. Per-student K-12 spending has nearly tripled since 1970, while test scores have remained essentially flat. Whatever the problem is with public education, lack of money ain't it.
Anderson Cooper, to his credit, attempted to get an actual answer to his question:
COOPER: So just to follow up, you don't believe unions protect bad teachers?
CLINTON: You know what—I have told my friends at the top of both unions, we've got to take a look at this, because it is one of the most common criticisms. We need to eliminate the criticism.
You know, teachers do so much good, they are often working under [the] most difficult circumstances. So anything that could be changed, I want them to look at it. I will be a good partner to make sure that whatever I can do as president, I will do to support the teachers of our country.
Bolding mine, because I want you to re-read that snippet, and reflect on the kind of mindset that could produce it. There are few politicians in American life who have expended more oxygen on selling public policy through the emotion-tugging argument of helping vulnerable children than Hillary Clinton. And yet she cannot bring herself to say "We've got to take a look at this because we need to protect the children"; instead, it's because "We need to eliminate the criticism."
This is akin to positing that the real problem with the Veterans Administration scandal is those dastardly Koch brothers, and yes, that also happened at a recent Democratic presidential debate. There really is no excuse for waking up in 2016 as a 68-year-old with a four-decade career in public life and suggesting that teacher-tenure rules are some kind of newly posited obstacle to quality public education. Those noted union-busters at The New Yorker magazine were sounding the alarm about "rubber rooms" seven years ago. Clinton of late has been embracing President Barack Obama tightly enough to strangle a healthy goat, and yet Obama's own Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, is an up-front critic of how teacher tenure negatively affects children.
It's not just Clinton, of course. Both she and Bernie Sanders support expensive universal pre-K, even though objective studies have demonstrated again and again that universal pre-K doesn't move the needle on student performance. And Sanders is such a committed centralizer, such a single-issue anti-Wall Street crusader, that he cannot see any other culprit for Detroit's lousy schools than Washington's greedy Republicans. From last night:
We have a Republican leadership in congress now fighting for hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the top two-tenths of one percent, but somehow we can't come up with the money to fix Detroit's crumbling public school system. Somehow we cannot make sure that Detroit has qualified and good teachers. Somehow we can't make sure that there are summer programs for your children, and after-school programs for your children. Somehow we cannot do what other countries around the world, is provide quality childcare and pre-K.
We have got to change our national priorities, no more tax breaks for billionaires, and large corporations. We are going to invest in our children, and have the best public school system.
Detroit spends more than $14,000 per year per K-12 student. And starting last month, it is paying more for debt service than current teachers. That kind of profound managerial dysfunction needs to be pinned first of all on the dysfunctional managers, who are neither Washington Republicans nor Wall Street bankers.
So Bernie wants to throw federal dollars at the problem by taxing the greedheads. Hillary wants to, uh, throw federal dollars, restore local control, and send in a SWAT team? I wish I was making that up:
Number one, I would reinstate a program we did have during the 1990s where the federal government provided funding to repair and modernize public schools, because a lot of communities can't afford to do that on their own.
Secondly, I would use every legal means at my disposal to try to force the governor and the state to return the schools to the people of Detroit—to end the emergency management.
Number three, I want to set up inside the Department of Education, for want of a better term, kind of an education SWAT team, if you will.
I won't, thanks.
Meet the California teacher whose lawsuit Arne Duncan praises, and Hillary Clinton condemns: