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Where Do Democrats Stand on Education? (Opinion)

The politics of education today look very different from those of the Bush-Obama years, when Democrats for Education Reform got its start. The bipartisan consensus that informed policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top has given way to a polarized environment. What’s that mean for would-be school reformers, especially in the shadow of a presidential contest between two hugely unpopular candidates? I thought I’d reach out to Jorge Elorza, the CEO of DFER and a former two-term mayor of Providence, R.I., to get his take on the Democratic agenda, school choice, and the education landscape. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: You took the reins of DFER last year after eight years as mayor of Providence. What’s struck you most in this new role?

Jorge: What has struck me the most is the extent of the crisis in public education and the lack of urgency among political leaders to address it. Public education is the bedrock of opportunity in America, but too many of our academic institutions are simply not making the grade. Kids are not getting the equitable opportunities they deserve—and there is too little being done to change this. This inaction is especially concerning given the profound and lasting impact of the pandemic on our education system. The need for urgent, transformative solutions has never been clearer; hence, our focus on getting more Democratic leaders to prioritize bold, evidence-based education policies.

Rick: As you know, there are those on the left who’ve long attacked DFER for being insufficiently progressive. How do you respond to such critics? And, in the same vein, can you say a few words about just why you’re a Democrat?

Jorge: We’ve always believed that DFER’s mission aligns well with core progressive values. We believe that low-income and Black and brown families should have the same access to high-quality education options as families with means. However, being hyperfocused on kids and families, as opposed to the adults in the system, has led some folks to criticize us. I’m a Democrat because, compared to Republicans, I’ve always believed that the party at least tries to look out for the little guy. On education, we still have a lot of work to do!

Rick: DFER was founded nearly 20 years ago, back when education reform was riding high and DFER could lean on celebrities like New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein and D.C. chief Michelle Rhee. How are things different today?

Jorge: Today, DFER operates in a political landscape that is not as open to fundamental education reform as it once was. Many folks have even pronounced education reform dead. But I think that assessment is awfully wrong. It is true that many philanthropists and political leaders have turned away from ed. reform, but the desire for choice among the public is about as high as it has ever been. Our message to the Democratic Party is that the choice-vs.-no-choice debate has been settled among voters. Choice won. We must embrace choice in a form that aligns with Democratic values and we are calling for the party to embrace public school choice as the cornerstone of its education agenda.

Rick: When DFER was launched, there was substantial support for measures like charter schools and other forms of school choice in the Democratic Party. But as you note, that’s less true today, at least among the policy elite. How has that altered DFER’s role?

Jorge: The political landscape has indeed shifted, and elected leaders have moved away from our issues. Ten years ago, voters trusted Democrats on education far more than they trusted Republicans—in fact, Democrats held a double-digit advantage over Republicans on voters’ trust on education. Today, that advantage is gone. To put it bluntly, voters no longer see Democrats as the party of education. Our outreach to the party makes the case that embracing an ambitious ed. reform agenda is not only good policy but also good politics. With elections as tight as they are, every issue matters. We want to make sure that Democrats lead on education policy once again.

Rick: As you well know, when it comes to school choice today, polling suggests a stark split between college-educated progressives, who are skeptical, and rank-and-file Democrats, who tend to be supportive. How are you navigating that tension?

Jorge: This is an interesting moment for Democrats as they become more attuned to the fact that low-income Black and Latino voters are drifting away from them. Education can and should be part of the message that brings independents and traditional rank-and-file Democrats back into the fold. We believe that voters support high-quality education options because . . . of course they do! Once folks have seen that they can have high-quality options to choose from, they naturally want more of them. Hence, we believe Democrats should embrace an education policy that emphasizes a broad menu of public school options.

Rick: Where does DFER stand on testing and educational accountability today?

Jorge: Strong accountability standards have always been a core policy pillar of ours. Without accountability, it’s hard to improve our education systems. We also support standardized testing because it is a tool to measure progress and hold schools accountable for serving their students. In fact, unlike in the NCLB era, we believe that not enough is being done to provide opportunities to students in the lowest-performing schools, either by fundamentally revamping those schools or by offering students new and better options in the public system. We are working to change that.

Rick: Could you say a bit about DFER’s approach when it comes to promoting the science of reading?

Jorge: We believe America should launch a moonshot goal of getting every child to read at grade level by 3rd grade by 2030. We advocate comprehensive reforms, beginning with teacher training and continuing through curriculum selection and professional development. Growth in states like Mississippi demonstrates that transformation is possible and underscores the bipartisan nature of this issue. Governor Wes Moore’s decision to appoint Carey Wright, a leader in Mississippi’s successful reading reforms, to head Maryland’s literacy efforts further emphasizes the universality of the goal.

Rick: How do you think President Biden has performed in light of the DFER agenda?

Jorge: President Biden showed tremendous leadership by investing historic sums in education to address COVID-related learning loss. We applaud him for that. However, his administration has lacked a clear K–12 reform agenda, which raises questions about what they want their education legacy to be. The politics of education are hard. That said, we’d like to see the administration champion K–12 policies that require a certain measure of political courage. We are hopeful that in a second term, students and families will have as much political influence as the adults have now.

Rick: That said, in response to the administration’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget, you released a pretty forceful statement, declaring, “The administration’s cuts to public school choice give the least consideration to the very communities the president needs the most. It not only hurts students, it hurts the president’s re-election chances.” Can you say a bit more about the proposed cuts and the political consequences that concern you?

Jorge: What we were driving home with that statement was the fact that cuts to the federal Charter Schools Program, or CSP, directly oppose what so many families are telling us they want for their kids. Families have been clearly saying they need more opportunities for innovative educational pathways; public charter schools provide exactly that. We were cautioning the administration that ignoring the wishes of these families—these voters—potentially jeopardizes its electoral prospects. I am pleased to see that since that statement, Biden has signed into law the congressional spending package, which flat-funds, rather than cuts, CSP. We will, however, continue to urge Congress to increase funding for CSP to $500 million and hope to see this in the future.

Rick: Looking at the education landscape as a whole, how do you think about the role of DFER in 2024?

Jorge: There are a limitless number of important issues in education today, but DFER’s North Star has always been “results for kids.” We will continue to focus on a practical, evidence-based, results-driven approach to education policy. Despite all of the progress we’ve seen over the years, too many school systems are still falling woefully short of where they need to be—and in the process, lives are being lost. There is a crisis in public education, and we need to bring widespread attention to it. You can expect us to speak with a heightened sense of urgency on this issue.

Rick: Final question: Looking forward, what are you most optimistic about when it comes to school improvement?

Jorge: As they say, you should never let a good crisis go to waste. I believe the changing political dynamics will force Democrats to take education policy more seriously again. In my opinion, there is no major policy area in America that lends itself to broad bipartisan support more than public school choice. Once Democrats fully embrace it, I believe two things will happen: Education policies will be bolder, and Democrats will lead on education again.

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