Democrats grasp for wins on public school

MINNEAPOLIS — President Joe Biden’s education chief believes public schools are facing a “make or break moment.” The rescue plan coming from some Democrats, however, rings of policies that have already landed wins for conservatives.

Political skirmishes over classrooms have left Democrats underwater, or dead even, with Republicans among voters in a clutch of battleground states. And as they worried their party has not honed a strategy to reverse declining test scores, enrollment and trust in public schools, liberals watched Republican governors sign historic private school choice laws this year.

The GOP wins and a generational crisis in schooling has convinced some Democrats that the Biden administration needs to promote a liberal version of public school choice in the 2024 campaign, or risk losing votes.

“We’ve lost our advantage on education because I think that we’ve failed to fully acknowledge that choice resonates deeply with families and with voters,” said Jorge Elorza, the CEO of Democrats for Education Reform and its affiliate Education Reform Now think tank.

The political flak from both the left and right has put pressure on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who is campaigning for public schools and — as someone who hopes to stick around if Biden wins a second term — himself.

“If you erase the Department of Education or you fund private schools, what are you doing for the students that are in the local neighborhood school? I have yet to see a plan,” Cardona told POLITICO of conservative proposals while touring schools across the Midwest and Great Plains. “We have a plan.”

Yet despite the mileage the secretary is putting into classroom visits and urging party faithful to “get back on offense,” Cardona’s facing allies who are clamoring for a more sweeping reinvention of public education and a more forceful response to schoolhouse culture wars.

“Secretary Cardona is a wonderful, loving, sweet man. He’s an educator,” said Keri Rodrigues, the president of the National Parents Union and a member of the Massachusetts State Democratic Committee. “But what we are going through right now is a brutal political moment, and what our kids and American families need is someone with a very specific vision for how we reimagine our American public school system.”

Public schools are confronting significant post-Covid enrollment shifts to private and home schools. Policies that grant students access to school options beyond their traditional neighborhood campus are popular. That has left Cardona to protect the schoolhouse castle, navigate longstanding disagreements between labor unions and liberal education reform groups, and advance a distinctive Democratic vision of education that appeals to families and voters.

“We shouldn’t be promoting private schools because our neighborhood schools are not making the grade,” Cardona said as he rolled from an exurban Minnesota technical college toward a city dual-language elementary school. “We should make sure we’re working to support our neighborhood schools to make the grade.”

Here’s the thing. Private choice is taking off — and fast.

Republican governors in Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, Florida and elsewhere are now presiding over major expansions of programs that give families public subsidies to pay for private school tuition and other education expenses. Oklahoma officials are also leading a campaign to open explicitly religious public schools, which some church leaders and conservative advocates see as a monumental leap for school choice and religious liberty.

Public school enrollment meanwhile dropped by 3 percent in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, a plunge of some 1.4 million students. There are also signs liberals have failed to regain the broad trust on education they once held with voters.

“Neither the administration, nor the left, has offered an alternative to the private school choice options that Republicans are offering,” said Elorza, a former mayor of Providence, R.I., who supported then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s bid to have the state take over his city’s troubled school system and made headlines when he declared his family would not send their young son to the city’s public schools.

Democrats are either trailing or essentially tied with Republicans among voters in four battleground states when it comes to which party is trusted to ensure public schools prepare students for life after graduation, according to polling Elorza’s group commissioned during mid-July in North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. Roughly half of voters and parents in those states said their schools were about the same or worse since before the pandemic.

“What’s going to happen if we don’t as a party embrace choice is that, as polling shows us, we’re going to lose voters to Republicans on this issue,” Elorza said. “We’re going to lose elections because of this issue. And policywise, we’re going to end up with their version of choice — which is private school choice.”

Elorza points to battleground voters’ support for public charter schools, career academies and magnet schools — and their preference for public options over private schools and voucher programs. He said Democrats should also embrace open enrollment policies that allow students to easily transfer within or between school districts.

The head of the country’s second-largest teachers union does not disagree with the general idea.

After all, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in an interview, an idea like building a massive regional career tech education center would require new inter-district student transfer policies.

“We should be engaged in a robust discussion about how we give kids those kinds of choices within a public system,” Weingarten said. Yet old debates are hard to quell, including unions’ differences with Democrats who want school models to embrace market-based principles.

“The obeisance to competition and to markets doesn’t work when you are talking about educating all children,” Weingarten said.

Rodrigues said focusing on disputes between traditional schools, charters or other public options risks “totally missing the moment, and missing where parents are.”

“We’re in a moment where Democrats should be really embracing school choice as a tool of equity and empowerment, instead of holding tight to this antiquated neighborhood boundary model,” Rodrigues said.

One part of Democrats’ response to conservatives was embodied in the stops featured during Cardona’s barnstorming, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said. They included a community public high school that distributes toiletries and clothing to students who need them in the Mayo Clinic’s hometown of Rochester, Minn. and a sprawling Dakota County Technical College campus an hour’s drive north in Rosemount, Minn.

“The second part of it is to not shy away from understanding that we need to in some ways really reimagine how public education should work,” Smith told POLITICO. “We have a public education system that has traditionally been organized and designed to prepare students for a four-year college education. That is not the best path for every single person.”

Cardona, who graduated from a technical high school instead of his assigned neighborhood campus, says he’s a beneficiary of choice. But he said expanding options should not come at the expense of neighborhood schools that are still responsible for educating millions of children.

“We shouldn’t be promoting choice while ignoring the neighborhood schools that still need support,” the secretary said.

“Family choice is critical,” he added. “I don’t know that we’ve ever had a position against it. I just think we have to make sure that if we’re talking about how we fund it, we shouldn’t do it off the backs of the neighborhood school’s funding.”

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