How litmus tests have undermined school reform

How litmus tests have undermined school reform
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Last week, in “Education Next,” University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene and I issued a new study reporting that, contrary to the conventional wisdom holding that “school reform” is a bipartisan movement, school reformers today are overwhelmingly left-leaning. In fact, 87 percent or more of the political contributions made over the last decade by staff at school-reform organizations went to Democrats.

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We examined contributions made by staff at more than 250 education-reform organizations that receive support from either the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Walton Family Foundation, finding that Democrats received 99 percent of the 2,600 contributions made by employees at Gates grantees and 87 percent of the 3,900 made by those at Walton grantees. This means that, over the past decade, the leading “school reform” organizations have tilted more to the Democrats than has the National Education Association.

Greene and I suggested that the results are significant for the fate of school improvement efforts by raising hard questions about the political and ideological breadth of the movement. We noted:

“A coalition whose staff and scholars are so identified with one political party is likely to suffer when forging bipartisan coalitions, finding new converts, or anticipating and addressing opposition concerns. Reform advocates who support a Democratic Party that is lurching left may not know (or care) how their proposals and rhetoric are perceived by those in the center or on the right.”

Some reformers found the results a useful way to make sense of challenges they’ve encountered in recent years — on issues ranging from the Common Core to accountability to testing. Many others, however, responded by offering a telling window into how “reform” has acquired its monochromatically blue hue. For instance, education pundit Rishawn Biddle explained that the issue is “how advocates for choice, along with nearly all conservative reformers, have consistently failed to work closely with activists — especially [Black Lives Matter] advocates and school discipline reformers — on issues outside of ed.”

University of Southern California professor Morgan Polikoff argued that Republicans are absent in education reform because they are, “100%, entirely devoted to Trumpism and all that comes with it - the horrifying racism, the economic policy designed only to reward the already-wealthy and punish the poor, the commitment to environmental destruction at all costs.” He added, “If you’d like to be in ed reform but you’re supporting Trump still? . . . We should probably feel very fortunate that your ideas are not also polluting the education space.”

What’s on display here is the embrace of expansive litmus tests by some of the more outspoken denizens of school reform. The reality, of course, is that every movement, by definition, requires some agreement on core beliefs. After all, people have to agree on some things in order to work together. The striking thing is how all-encompassing those core beliefs have become in school reform circles. Two decades ago, the nonnegotiable beliefs could be summarized thusly: 1] schools can and must do better and 2] ideas like school choice and educational accountability are probably part of the solution.

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Today, though, the school reform community seems to take its lead from those who insist that being an agent of educational improvement requires one to think "correctly" about a host of issues, including diversity and inclusion, white privilege, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, immigration, the causes of poverty, taxation, climate change, gun control, and more. For many influential school reform groups, these ideological predilections are not incidental — but are omnipresent and woven into their worldview, talking points, and agenda.

These value-laden stances speak to the very nature and purpose of schooling. As school reformers have embraced the progressive side in debates on hotly contested social issues, they’ve made it clear that being critical of DACA or supportive of Trump’s tax cuts renders insincere any claims to support for school improvement. This makes it tough for even broad-minded progressives to partner in good faith with those who disagree on such questions. And it becomes equally difficult for those on the right to partner with “reformers” they see as hostile to faith, enamored of race-based policies, and contemptuous of their values.

Faced with these new litmus tests, those wishing to tap into “reform” networks and funding mostly share those beliefs, learn to mimic them, or hush up. Doing anything else means one will not be seen as “mission aligned” by influential networks, conference organizers, advocates, and funders. This has helped decimate the ranks of conservatives and muzzle the less ideological progressives.

For those who think a meaningful school reform coalition can and must encompass those who have good-faith disagreements about economic policy, immigration, and the “woke” agenda, finding a way to rethink these litmus tests represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the recent Education Next study, “Education Reform’s Deep Blue Hue.”