Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Monday, August 3, 2015

Where Do Education Progressives Go Politically?

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.

This 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 has produced.

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.

A federal 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?


Many 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.

Education 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.

The 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.

"Single-issue" 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, election.

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 accountability mandates.

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 politics behind.

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.


  1. Or we can step up as the nucleus of a new national party.

  2. The various aspects discussed regarding the local bodies aggression and their role to the present level of success parts, but the more important is that what have you done for the economic values and for educational needs.