Democrats Revise Education Platform; Step Back From Phony “Reform”

BY HANK REICHMAN

Up until Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton yesterday, it was common to view the main fault line dividing the Democratic Party as that between Sanders’ largely younger and definitely more radical supporters and a more cautious and aging party “establishment” represented by Clinton.  But another fault line has been that between the party’s embrace under President Obama of much of the education “reform” agenda of charter schools, standardized testing, and test-based “merit pay,” often promoted by charter school operators and hedge fund managers, and the growing concerns of educators and especially teachers’ unions that the reform agenda both undermines democratic public education and student success. While to some extent this parallels the Sanders/Clinton divide, most teacher groups actually supported Clinton over Sanders.

Now, in an unexpected move, the Democrats have revised the K-12 education section of the party’s 2016 platform in important ways, backing the right of parents to opt their children out of high-stakes standardized tests, qualifying support for charter schools, and opposing using test scores for high-stakes purposes to evaluate teachers and students.  While the changes are not directly linked to higher education, they clearly mark a step — hopefully a meaningful one — away from broader corporatizing trends that also affect colleges and universities.  Indeed, the platform additionally calls for free tuition at public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 annually and a debt-free higher education for all Americans. It further calls for year-round Pell Grants, an expansion of debt repayment options, and additional support for historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions.

In a statement, Randy Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which was an early endorser and active supporter of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said,

Thanks to collaboration between Clinton and Sanders drafters and platform committee members, the public education plank in the Democratic platform represents a refreshing sea change in its approach to public education, to the students we serve, and to the parents and educators who work so hard to give all our children the opportunity they deserve.

This platform makes it clear that Democrats are committed to ending the failed era of test-and-sanction, and are ready to refocus on strategies that will help each and every child succeed, from early childhood through college and career.

The platform renews a commitment to the role of parents and teachers, and recommits to the idea that local communities should have democratic voice in their schools. It focuses on strategies to keep kids in school and engaged—from a rich curriculum to restorative justice to wraparound supports—so that every student has a fair shot to reach his or her potential. And it calls for giving educators and school employees the latitude, tools and trust to support students.

Democrats amended the platform to: support community schools with wraparound services in struggling neighborhoods; implement restorative justice and alternative discipline practices; invest in engaging STEM curricula; explicitly oppose high-stakes testing as a means to close schools or evaluate educators; support a parents’ right to opt their children out of tests; and support and respect all educators and school employees.

One of the most significant amendments deals with the role of charter schools, and Democrats are in agreement on this. Charters must reflect the neighborhoods they serve and teach all children regardless of disability, special needs or background. We clearly oppose the idea of for-profit charters, and call for full accountability and transparency for all charter schools. This supports the original vision for charter schools: to complement, not to replace or destabilize, traditional public schools.

Weingarten also called the platform’s higher ed provisions “the most progressive in American history.”

To cite coverage in Education Week, the changes constitute

an almost total rejection of the Obama administration’s K-12 agenda, at least for the first six years of the administration. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made dramatic school improvement strategies (based largely on test scores) and test-based teacher evaluations a cornerstone of his K-12 agenda, both through the Race to the Top grant competition and, later, waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act.

And it goes even further than the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new law replacing NCLB. Unlike the Obama administration’s policies, ESSA doesn’t require states to gauge teacher performance using test scores, but it allows states and districts to continue the practice if they want. If Democratic policymakers take the platform to heart, they’ll reject the performance reviews.

The platform also makes it clear that while Democrats support “high quality charters,” they don’t think that charters should replace public schools. And Democrats want beefed-up accountability and transparency for charters. They also want to see charters serve English-learners and students in special education, something they don’t do often enough, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Meeting last week in Orlando, Florida, the platform committee changed earlier drafts of the K-12 education provisions.  For example, the first released draft said this:

Democrats are also committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools and we will help them to disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators. At the same time, we oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources. Democrats also support increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools.

That was quickly criticized by, among others, Diane Ravitch, who called it unacceptable and said Democrats needed to make a statement opposing corporate replacements for neighborhood public schools. Democratic negotiators led by Troy LaRaviere, an outspoken Chicago educator who was pushed out of his job as principal of an elementary school by the school district leadership; Chuck Pascal, a Sanders delegate from Pennsylvania; and Christine Kramar, a Nevada delegate, worked to win agreement on changes to the original language. They got help from Weingarten as well and some of their amendments were adopted with little dissent.  Here’s the result:

Democrats are also committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support democratically governed great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators. Democrats oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources. We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools. We support increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools.

The words “democratically governed” are significant, given that, as Washington Post education writer Valerie Straus — a longtime critic of the charter movement — put it, “charter schools are beholden to the boards that grant them charters to operate, not the general public, and that they are not required to reveal key information about their finances and governance to the public.”

There were important changes to the test-based accountability language.  The old language said this:

Democrats believe that all students should be taught to high academic standards. Schools should receive adequate resources and support. We will hold schools, districts, communities, and states accountable for raising achievement levels for all students — particularly low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. We are also deeply committed to ensuring that we strike a better balance on testing so that it informs, but does not drive, instruction.

The new language says this:

We are also deeply committed to ensuring that we strike a better balance on testing so that it informs, but does not drive, instruction. To that end, we encourage states to develop a multiple measures approach to assessment, and we believe that standardized tests must meet American Statistical Association standards for reliability and validity. We oppose high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing, the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools, and the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations, a practice which has been repeatedly rejected by researchers. We also support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their school.

The last sentence is critical, because as the opt-out movement has grown the Obama administration has pushed states to penalize schools where more than 5 percent of students don’t take the required tests.

Another important change involved the paragraph that said this in the first draft:

We will invest in high-quality STEM classes, community schools, computer science education, arts education, and expand linked learning models and career pathways. We will end the school-to-prison pipeline. And we will work to improve school culture and combat bullying of all kinds.

The new language goes into more detail, calling specifically for changes in tough disciplinary policies at schools that disproportionately affect blacks, Latinos, students with disabilities and LGBT students. Also, the “A,” for arts, was added to STEM to make it STEAM:

We will invest in high quality STEAM classes, community schools, computer science education, arts education, and expand link learning models and career pathways. We will end the school to prison pipeline by opposing discipline policies which disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities, and by supporting the use of restorative justice practices that help students and staff resolve conflicts peacefully and respectfully while helping to improve the teaching and learning environment. And we will work to improve school culture and combat bullying of all kinds. We will encourage restorative justice and reform overly punitive disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact African Americans and Latinos, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as LGBT.

The new platform marks an even bigger departure from the 2012 platform, which called for “carefully crafted” evaluation systems, and had big praise for the Obama administration’s role in urging states to adopt the Common Core standards. The words “Common Core” cannot even be found in the draft platform or any of the excerpts of amendments that have been released.

Of course, both major political parties regularly ignore their own platform statements once in office.  Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, told Strauss, that the statements supporting opt-outs and opposing the use of student test scores to evaluate students and teachers are “particularly strong.” But, he added, “As someone who has attended three national party conventions (and countless statewide gatherings), I recognize that platform language rarely has a significant impact on policy.  So, even if the rhetoric sounds considerably better, the proof is in the doing!”

Nevertheless, Shavar Jeffries, president of the Democrats for Education Reform, an influential political action committee supported heavily by hedge fund managers favoring charter schools, merit-pay tied to test scores and related reforms, was infuriated by the changes.  In a statement he said:

After putting forward a progressive and balanced education agenda in the initial draft of the 2016 Democratic Platform, this weekend the Platform Drafting Committee inexplicably allowed the process to be hijacked at the last minute. This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Advocates of “reform” have long couched their proposals in a mostly sham concern for the “disadvantaged,” but as teachers and increasing numbers of community members recognize, it has in fact been those very “disadvantaged” youth who have been most short-changed by undemocratic charter companies, high-stakes testing, and assaults on teacher tenure and academic freedom.  Hopefully, the amended platform indicates that the majority of the Democratic Party and the next administration have begun to see this as well.

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