Why Have Education Politics Gone National?

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What teacher strikes, school board elections, and philanthropy have in common

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Jeffrey R. Henig, Rebecca Jacobsen & Sarah Reckhow

Over the last 12 months, teacher strikes and walkouts have spread across the country, including in Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and cities such as Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland, Calif. While it is tempting to tell this story as a simple narrative about teachers pushing back against years of austerity and get-tough accountability within their states and communities, we think something bigger is going on.

While each of the recent teacher protests has home-grown causes and place-specific demands, they have more in common than one might expect. Strikers in large cities like Oakland and Los Angeles drew inspiration from last spring’s strikes in weak-union states, for example by borrowing their “Red for Ed” imagery. And in red-state West Virginia, where strikers last year focused almost exclusively on bread-and-butter issues like wages, teachers now have taken on the battle against charter schools and privatization more generally, ideologically charged issues taken straight from the national political arena.

We believe the recent wave of teacher strikes and walkouts is indicative of a broader phenomenon blurring the boundaries between national and local school politics. Education politics in the United States are notably more localized than in other countries. Localization has traditionally meant a strong role for teachers and their unions. In low-turnout school board elections—which, in many places, are held out of cycle with high-profile national elections—teachers could convert their motivation, mobilization, and reputation for expertise into a central, occasionally dominant, role in shaping school board decisions.

“Local arenas have become important strategic fronts in a larger national battle over the future of public education.”

But that’s been changing. The local political stage has become more crowded, with some of the major players coming from out of town, including philanthropies, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation; charter networks and alternative sources of teacher credentialing, like KIPP and Teach For America; political advocacy organizations, like Democrats for Education Reform; and wealthy out-of-state campaign contributors, like Michael Bloomberg and philanthropists John and Laura Arnold.

Many of these outside actors generally share a set of priorities focused on increased accountability through standardized testing, promotion of school choice and other market-oriented efforts, and reform of teacher tenure protections. They proudly claim the label “reformers” to distinguish themselves from teachers’ unions that they characterize as defenders of the status quo.

Teachers on the picket line and billionaire donors might appear to have little in common, but we see both groups engaging in an increasingly nationalized debate over education politics, while simultaneously working to advance their agendas through strategic action in local politics. During the Bush and Obama years, when the action on education reform seemed to be focused in Washington, some reformers believed they could bypass the local arenas. They often saw the traditionally dominant role of unions in local district politics as a roadblock to their overall vision. Today, local arenas have become important strategic fronts in a larger national battle over the future of public education.

To understand how nationalization takes shape, we closely examined school board elections in five cities: Bridgeport, Conn., Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. We compiled a database of 18,809 campaign contributions spanning election cycles from 2008 to 2014, including contributions from individuals, PACs, independent expenditure committees, unions, and businesses. Our research sheds light on the changing dynamics in the world of education politics.

Teachers’ unions—national, state, and local affiliates—are still a force. They donated just over 25 percent of the total contributions coming from organizations. They were outspent, however, by organizations promoting charter school expansion, test-based accountability, teacher merit pay, and tenure reform. These reform organizations accounted for almost 40 percent of donations by organizations.

When we look at contributions from individuals, whether directly to candidates or through intermediary organizations, the role of out-of-state donors further dwarfed that of the teachers’ unions. Despite the growing share of funds from a small group of wealthy national donors, outside funding did not automatically translate into a winning campaign. Reform-backed candidates in our cities won about 2 ½ times as often as they lost, while union-backed candidates basically broke even.

The funding also influenced which issues were debated during the campaign and how those issues were framed. News coverage of elections where outside funding was present often focused on nationalized issues such as school choice and provided little to no coverage of more localized issues such as budget concerns and curricular offerings.

As emphasis on nationalized issues grew, candidates on both sides of the debate took firmer, more ideological policy positions, leaving little room for compromise or pragmatic decision-making, historically a hallmark of local school board politics. The candidates we interviewed connected this polarization directly to outside funding. As one candidate told us, “most donors don’t like the middle approach.”

Rather than viewing the recent strikes, philanthropic investments, or donations to school board elections as discrete events, we see them all as part of the nationalization of education politics. This nationalization reflects a growing realization that local arenas are important sites for agenda setting and political engagement over education issues. With nationalization, the formal boundaries of local districts operate less as walls and more as meeting places where national and local actors form alliances around competing visions of what schools should be.

Nationalization does not mean teachers’ unions are being pushed to the margins. Nor does it mean that local actors are being overshadowed.

Converting money into local political power requires connecting with voters who have their own issues and concerns. And it means that teachers’ unions have to work harder and more creatively than they once did to stir their members and attract new allies. The efforts to create linked themes and narratives across disparate strikes and walkouts reflect their work to do just that.

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