Good Luck Finding an Education Secretary Who Can Help Kids and Make Unions Happy, Mr. President-Elect

President-Elect Joe Biden may be setting himself up for a confrontation between two of his top advisors. Perched on one shoulder will be Dr. Anthony Fauci, his Chief Medical Advisor, steadfastly counseling him to “Close the bars and keep the schools open.” 

Perched on his other shoulder — if he chooses as Education Secretary either former NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia or current AFT president Randi Weingarten, both rumored to be on his shortlist–will be an advisor steadfastly counseling him to urge states to keep schools closed.

  • As Eskelsen Garcia wrote, “Americans should have no doubt that teachers want to be in their classrooms with their students on the first day of the coming school year, but we won’t acquiesce to a vision of learning that endangers the lives of everyone who walks in to a schoolhouse, as well as their families and communities.
  • As Weingarten announced, “If schools can’t get the money they need to safely reopen, then they won’t reopen, period.” (How much money does she calculate schools need? “At least $116.5 billion.”)
  • And as new NEA president Becky Pringle told EdWeek, “If we’re going to try to keep [children and teachers] safe, and if that means that we cannot reopen schools, …. then we’ve gotta do better.”

So what will our new leader do? He says he’ll be driven by science so you’d think he’d listen to the scientist. But how will he placate an Education Secretary who supports the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, which tweeted this absurdity (and later deleted it) on Monday?

This conundrum for President-Elect Biden is bigger than the pandemic and reflects a growing rift in the Democratic Party. During this toxic time in America, it’s not just COVID-19 that is splintering allegiances.  A lesson from this most recent election is that the Republican Party is picking up steam from traditional Democratic strongholds like working-class Americans and blue-collar union members. Additionally, the heavily-politicized issue of public school choice —increasingly important  during a pandemic that has decimated academic growth of low-income students— has evolved into a wedge issue for two large Democratic constituencies: White progressives and Black and Brown Americans who have been long-time loyal members of the Democratic Party.

As Andy Rotherham writes

The awkward problem for Democrats is that majorities of Black and Hispanic Americans support school choice options and are more likely than white progressives to do so. The good news for Democrats is that there are relatively few single-issue education voters in federal races; the bad news is that Republicans don’t have to make deep inroads with Black and Hispanic voters to throw up electoral roadblocks. Twenty percent Black support, rather than the approximately 12 percent Trump received in 2020, would put Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin back in the Republican column.

So let’s pose an additional — and longer-term—conundrum for Joe Biden. If he chooses Eskelsen Garcia or Weingarten as Education Secretary, he will, once again, be weighed down by dissenting forces. On his “progressive” shoulder he’ll have a former union leader who, if he picks Weingarten, will urge him to support moratoria on charter schools or, if he picks Eskelsen Garcia, calls charter schools a “failed and damaging experiment.” On his other shoulder he’ll have an increasing number of Black and brown parents who are committed to school choice.

Don’t believe me? 

From a letter to the Democratic Platform Committee from the New Jersey Public Charter School Association.

Mr. Biden should be careful not to turn his back on the Black, Brown and working-class families in New Jersey who support him, and who also overwhelmingly support public charter schools. Of the more than 55,000 students who attend 87 of New Jersey’s public charter schools, 73% are from low-income families, 50% are Black, and 35% are Latinx.

From the recent Democrats for Education Reform poll:

A majority of Black and Hispanic Democratic primary voters view charter schools favorably. Democratic opposition to charters is dominated by White voters. 

From Margaret Fortune, a lifelong Democrat and Black charter school operator in California who primarily serves Black and Latino students:

What would be happening in a fair society is we would be asked for our opinions, rather than having candidates saying, ‘I have a plan for you — to shepherd you into the very schools that you left on purpose.’

Awkward! Which shoulder will Biden heed?  The progressive “woke” wing of the Democratic Party or the Black and Latino voters who lifted him to victory in Georgia, Detroit, and Philadelphia?

In an ideal world, he wouldn’t have to choose. In fact, he can’t, because without both constituencies, future Democratic victories become more elusive. (Note the many wins of down-ballot Republicans, signalling that Biden’s outcome was more a reflection of disgust for Donald Trump than alignment with the DNC platform. Also, according to Pew,  55% of white Democratic voters identify as liberal while only 29% of Black Democratic voters do.) 

So here’s a tip from a lifelong liberal Democrat who supports school choice: Listen to the people, not the lobbyists. As Rotherham says, “it’s an ironic political liability that at a time when the country, and in particular Democrats, are discussing structural inequality and racism in American life, ideas about giving poor parents choices or holding schools accountable for addressing racial disparities remain so controversial.”

If Biden really wants to do what he says —-unite and heal the divides not only throughout the country but within the Democratic Party— he’ll have to find a way to balance his disputatious shoulders. This can only happen by worrying less about white “progressives” and more about honoring the values of voters of color who got him across the finish line and happen to support school choice.

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