The following is a guest post by Harris Lirtzman, former Director of Risk Management for the New York City Retirement Systems in the NYC Comptroller's Office from 1996-2002 and former Deputy State Comptroller for Administration from 2003-2007.
The fight against the federal testing and accountability regime
aligns education progressives on the "local control" v. "federal
control” axis in confounding ways. We oppose federal control because
reformistas learned twenty years ago that if they were to move their
program forward they had to end the long period of "exceptionalism" in
American education, which left education in the hands of local school
boards minimally overseen by state education departments but watched
closely by teacher unions. Education has now been brought within the
full scope of state and national politics--the "federalization" of
education serves to make the education reform program possible by moving
it to a venue where the full force of money and a new set of political
alliances can sidestep parents and teachers.
The mainstream civil
rights groups have always distrusted "localism" because in most parts
of the country the only way that children of color could reliably be
educated was by federal intervention, primarily Title 1. We now have a
federalized education reform program supported by its natural ally, the
mainstream civil rights groups.
The unfortunate result of all
this is that the reform focus on de-professionalizing teaching and
breaking teachers' unions requires teachers to make a Faustian bargain:
we work together now with Republicans across the country to return
control of education to states and localities where we stand a chance of
preserving our profession and protecting our unions.
strategy--and the short-term gains that result from it--is a very
high-risk proposition for education progressives. We have seen what
happens when Republicans gain unified control in the states—the same
place where education progressives assume we will find some relief from
pernicious “federal control.” Education progressives who have been so
willing to work hand-in-hand with Republicans at the federal level will
come deeply to regret the short term gains that the coalition activity
There is absolutely no reason to believe that
“local control” of education policy will make anything better for
teachers beyond momentary relief from the harshest aspects of the test
and accountability regime. Anyone who has watched what has been going
on in Democratic New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts
ought not to believe that “local control” of education by Republicans in
Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana will provide any long-term gain
for teachers of any kind, progressive or otherwise.
government under the unified control of the Republican Party—and that
will happen one day soon--will result in the direct funding of charter
schools and vouchers, the decimation of Title 1 and Title 9 programs,
the appointment of judges who will eviscerate any remaining union
protections and the dismantling of the regulatory process that protects
children with disabilities.
So where do education progressives go, at least politically?
education progressives have defined "education progressivism" as a
single-issue battle and have not done a very good job finding allies
anywhere outside our own small world--because, frankly, most people are
not sufficiently concerned about the education reform program to have
been turned into "single-issue" partisans (see, here). We progressives
want education policy purity from our political parties and representatives but we are the only part of the
American progressive movement that has made this convenient bargain
with the Republican Party.
The radicalization of the Republican
Party since 2004 has forced the advocates for every other political
cause that education progressives also support--choice,
environmentalism, health care, labor law, a sane foreign policy, civil
rights, LGBT rights--to align with the Democratic Party.
progressives can support a candidate in the Democratic primaries who is
closer to our position than other candidates may be but in the end we
will either support the Democratic nominee, who will most surely not be
an education progressive, or will join a third party knowing that the
history of third parties in the United States is an abysmal one for
progressives except for the brief period between 1895 and 1915.
Democratic Party knows that most teachers will ultimately support the
Democratic nominee regardless what his or her education policy is
because most teachers are not "single-issue" voters, though they have a
keen sense of their own interests. They vote for candidates who are
acceptable to them for the same reason that most progressive Democrats
do: because they know that the Democratic Party, corporatized and
feckless though it may be, stands as the only thing between the full
range of "progressive" things that teachers care about and disaster.
With time there may come a point when a majority of Americans support
economic progressivism sufficiently to rebuild the Democratic Party in a
way that education progressives can support with open hearts.
teachers who will go Green or Libertarian will preserve their
educationally progressive principles and will lose. It is possible,
though not likely, that with the time, energy and money now used to
support the battles that education progressives fight to preserve public
schools and to democratize their unions they may be able to infuse a
third party with sufficient resources to win a national, or even state,
Education progressives who have an understanding of
practical politics in this country will recognize what most progressives
learned in 2000. Any education progressive who says now that there is
no difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties has not been
watching what's been happening in this country since 2000 very closely.
The Republican Party, with whom teachers have aligned
themselves on education policy issues, caught rabies in 2004. The
Republican Party, wherever it has been able to, pursues an agenda that
means death for every other thing that educational progressives support.
Any educational progressive who is not a “single issue” radical will
support the Democratic Party whoever its nominee is and abandon the
insanity of the Republican alliance that will have returned education
policy to the states, where progressive education policy goes to die its
own death, in return for momentary relief from federal testing and
Unfortunately, the story does not end
will for educational progressives. Except in small parts of the country
where individual Democrats care enough about educational progressivism
to make it an issue, educational reformers will be able to pursue the
same goals they have for the last two decades.
If the cost of political
engagement for educational progressives is that we are forced in the
end to make a “Sophie’s Choice” between our own progressivism and the
fuller range of progressivisms that we support then I say let us leave
Let us reform our unions, if we can. Let us fight to protect
teachers who are able to survive the education reform movement in their
workplaces. Let us preserve collective bargaining and dues check-off.
Let us develop a robust range of mutual support capabilities to preserve
teaching as a proud profession. Let us think about new strategies that
the weakness of our political position demands—particularly building
strong and vital alliances with other parts of the progressive movement,
especially with people of color—and let us focus on the long, hard,
unglamorous work that might turn the vast majority of apolitical
teachers into education progressives.
Let us think about almost
anything except how "educational progressives" can find a home in or be
saved by the American political process.
Because we can’t and because we won’t.