Questions, qualified statements and an assortment of "known unknowns" dominated the discussion at a Nov. 16 conversation among education leaders in Washington, D.C., focusing on the 2016 elections and a vote that yielded shocking results without signaling a clear national mandate on where the nation needs to go on education and other key issues.
Co-hosted at AFT headquarters by the union and the Albert Shanker Institute, the event featured remarks from AFT President Randi Weingarten; Luis A. Huerta, associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University's Teachers College; Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress; and Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Both progressive and conservative thought leaders at the table emphasized the absence of detail they were working with as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office after offering scant specifics on how the national education agenda will proceed under his administration.
Weingarten reminded the audience of the grueling work and exemplary risk-taking in Washington last year that ultimately led to enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), marking the end of education's No Child Left Behind era. At risk today is the consensus-building environment that allowed Congress to achieve with ESSA what has been called a legislative "miracle"—a truly bipartisan effort to come to terms with such difficult issues as Title I funding and the need to keep resources focused on students who need them most. In ESSA you see a push for a big change, but also [a call for] stability at the state and local levels, Weingarten said. "Now it's back to disruption and a lot of churn, [and] it will take real leadership to get us back" to progress.
Certainly there is real risk, Weingarten added, of political overreach and a misreading of the vote by Washington. The incoming administration's still-vague call for a $20 billion choice initiative in schools would be "a step backward on the issue of consensus around public education," given 2016 down-ballot results in California, Georgia, Massachusetts and other states that show a public still opposed to reckless, unaccountable choice and still firmly behind traditional, well-supported public schools.
Huerta agreed with this danger, noting that "a call for choice is one of the few knowns in Trump's agenda, but that fact invites at least as many questions as answers." What is clear, he stressed, is that affluent suburbia has shown no appetite for abandoning strong traditional public schools for choice plans; it is at-risk, lower-income neighborhoods that are saddled with this yet-to-be proven concept. What is clear, he said, is that a quarter-century of experience with vouchers and charters offers results that are "mixed and quite uneven" for kids.
Brown said the spotlight in coming years is tilting heavily to Republican dominance at the state and local levels. Thanks to the 2016 vote, the GOP has regained a level of control in state government that it hasn't enjoyed since 1932. "We might be on a bullet train to local control," she said. And that raises questions about what capacity state and local governments have to deal with education's full array of challenges.
Brown was quick to caution, however, that Republican down-ballot dominance does not mean that progressive voices and issues gained no traction with voters. Among the winners in 2016 were commonsense gun control, paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage and safeguards against choice funded at the expense of traditional schools.
When it comes to President-elect Trump, conservatives are asking just as many questions as progressives, Hess told the audience. To be sure, the Trump transition has elevated names that conservatives would find comfort in, such as Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus; but offsetting those developments in conservative circles is discomfort with choices like Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, to help lead the transition. "I would like to hope this is a conservative win, but there are no guarantees," Hess said of the Trump victory. "There's not reliable information out there."
Hess said he agrees with the view that Trump's message should be "taken seriously but not literally" in areas like vouchers and choice. And it's worth noting, Hess added, that education took a back seat to immigration, trade and other topics in campaign messaging, so it's reasonable to argue that education "is likely to be put back in the queue" during Trump's early days in office.
Dialing up civility
One topic that drew strong opinions from the panel was the need to dial up civility and respect after this bare-knuckles political season.
Inflammatory rhetoric is "a real threat in society," Hess said, and both the left and the right need to reset dialogue that bullied and shaped the vote in disturbing ways. Hess observed that it should be no surprise that many voters picked Trump as an option who "is not intimidated when the New York Times calls him a racist"—especially not when they believe that this label has been deployed so widely against Republicans as to have lost its meaning.
For the incoming administration, "the first test of leadership will be to build civil discourse," Weingarten agreed. "Obnoxious and horrible" language will be a dismal marker for the 2016 vote, and "we need leaders to say this must stop."
Beyond that, the nation has seen in this political cycle an uptick in hate episodes, singling out of vulnerable groups and "a real disconnect on the issue of righteous morality," Weingarten warned. "I would hope that, regardless of where we are on any of the policy issues, that is something that we work on."
[Mike Rose, Burnie Bond]