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February 18, 2014 11:44 AM Education As a Divisive Issue for Democrats

By Ed Kilgore

Yesterday Matt Yglesias managed to write a relatively short post that presented not one but two controversial proposition with respect to the ever-popular issue of divisions among Democrats. The first was that the famed “centrist versus populist” rift—re-pronounced the very day before by Tom Frank of What’s the Matter With Kansas fame as an apocalyptic choice—has been overblown, mainly because intra-party differences over bank regulation and tax rates do not blur the fundamental divide between Ds and Rs. The second was that if you want to see a real intra-party divide, look at education policy.

Democrats have, traditionally, been the party that believes that the quality of educational services provided by the government is very very very important. Since teachers get paid to provide educational services, they have naturally affiliated themselves with the party that believes that the provision of educational services is important. Conversely, since teachers have been very involved in Democratic Party politics the Democratic Party has tended to become the vehicle for teachers’ pursuit of their economic interests. The issue arises because one set of people—a broad group including writers and thinkers and donors and activists—has come to the view that policies advancing the economic interests of incumbent teachers are themselves a significant impediment to the provision of quality educational services.
Now you have a group of politicians (Barack Obama, Corey Booker, Rahm Emannuel, Michael Bennet, George Miller) who adhere to education reform ideology and another group of politicians (most Democrats in congress) who do not. This is a bit of a second-tier policy issue, so the disputes don’t get as much press as disagreements about bank regulation. But unlike the bank regulation controversy, it actually does raise the question of where will the parties stand. The reform faction has been dominant in recent years without, it seems to me, having actually persuaded most Democrats that it’s the correct faction (they’ve persuaded me, but that only gets you so far). That raises the real possibility that the next Democratic president will stop pushing for tougher teacher evaluations and more charter schools and blah blah and will instead push in the other direction. By contrast, we know that the next Democratic president will be fighting with congressional Republicans about tax cuts and defunding Dodd-Frank and such.

Matt could have added that there is a practical left-right alliance fighting “education reform” as Democratic “centrists” have defined it, particularly in the form of the Common Core Standards that are in the process of being implemented around the country, that doesn’t exist on economic issues (other than the rhetorical alliance opposing “crony capitalism,” which is defined very differently on the Left and Right). And there is nothing quite like “collaboration with the enemy” to make an intra-party fight more vicious than you’d think, particularly since “education reformers” are forever being accused with “collaboration with the enemy” themselves in their support for charter public schools and their occasional hostility to teachers unions.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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