Walker Boldly Recasts School Reform

His combative conservatism is a welcome challenge to Bush-era compromises with Democrats.

By Frederick M. Hess

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas” (Harvard University Press 2010).

No one knew for sure back in November 2010 what the Tea Party tide that swamped state legislatures and swept rock-ribbed conservatives into governor’s mansions from Tallahassee to Madison would yield. It’s now clear that one of its legacies is the return of principled conservatism to K-12 school reform. And that first became evident in Wisconsin.

State leaders wrestling with gaping budget shortfalls have abandoned a decade-long willingness to embrace me-too education reform, in which the entire playbook amounted to new dollars, more testing, and kind words about charter schools.

Instead, Tea Party-backed officials have challenged collective bargaining, demanded that schools find new efficiencies and insisted that educators be held accountable for their job performance. Wisconsin, thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s get-tough proposals, became the epicenter of this shift.

Unlike Democratic reformers, who have duck-walked around collective bargaining and teacher benefits, Walker directly challenged the teachers unions. Absent such direct challengers, the unions grew comfortable — and shameless. In his new Brookings Institution volume, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools,” for instance, Stanford University professor Terry Moe points out that the Michigan Education Association has distributed a 40-page instructional manual to its members entitled “Electing Your Own Employer, It’s As Easy As 1, 2, 3.”

What made the Wisconsin standoff so significant? For a decade, Republican thinking on education was dominated by the Bush administration’s big-government conservatism, with its affinity for federally mandated testing, race-based accountability, new spending, and intrusive interventions in “failing” schools.

The Bush agenda made it remarkably easy to reach common ground with school-reform Democrats and progressive groups like The Education Trust. The price was that conservative thought offered little of substance when it came to challenging teachers unions, out-of-control school spending or federal overreach.

The result: The education arena was celebrated by Washington tastemakers as a rare case of healthy bipartisanship.

What this meant, in practice, was that conservatives agreed to sing from the progressive hymnal — pumping more dollars into schools, sidestepping the enormous costs represented by teacher benefits and remaining so intent on closing achievement gaps that they had nothing to say about how to improve schools serving the vast majority of the nation’s children.

For instance, per pupil K-12 spending increased from $7,380 in 2000-01, the first year of the Bush presidency, to $9,683 in 2006-07, the most recent year for which the National Center for Education Statistics has data. That’s a 31% increase in just six years. From 2001 to 2008, federal spending on K-12 schooling rose from $42 billion to $59 billion.

The resurgence of principled small-government conservatism has swept away the Bush-era conventions like so much driftwood. How much have things changed?

House Republicans are concerned not with reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act but with cutting federal education spending and seeing how many programs they can zero out.

Left-leaning and right-leaning reformers no longer appear to be interchangeable when it comes to collective bargaining, school vouchers or the federal role. The new, combative conservatism is bemoaned as mean-spirited by pundits and CNN anchors who want everyone to sit down and hug it out.

Of course, it was also played as big news that Walker’s efforts would hurt his political opponents. The New York Times editorial page thundered that the governor was seeking to “crush unions” and engage in “destructive game playing.”

Such hand-wringing would be more convincing if these voices had expressed similar concerns when President Obama famously reminded Republicans that “elections have consequences” while promoting health-care and financial legislation that benefited Democratic constituencies and weakened Republican ones.

The winning side always promotes policies that reflect its preferences — and those, not surprisingly, tend to advantage its supporters and disadvantage its opponents. Nothing is new here. Democrats, for example, were pleased and fully aware that passing Medicare would help tame the once virulently anti-D.C. American Medical Association.

The only real question is whether Walker’s proposals are sound, sensible and good for Wisconsin. For critics to dodge that question by suggesting that policies conferring political benefit are illegitimate is disingenuous at best. Yet by failing to talk bluntly about this reality or about the fact that curtailing collective bargaining is not geared to the short-term fiscal situation but to putting the state on firmer footing going forward, Walker managed to make it look like he was the one engaging in doubletalk.

The Democrats For Education Reform, or DFER, spent the spring crying crocodile tears about the overreaching by uncouth Republican governors. DFER is an organization founded by reform-minded Democrats who wanted to challenge both their party’s spineless orthodoxy and the teacher unions on education reform.

The thing is, DFER’s leaders are serious about school reform but, first and foremost, they are Democrats. So, when Republican reformers like Walker went after collective bargaining and state spending with guns blazing, DFER couldn’t resist a priceless opportunity to steal a page from the old Clinton playbook and triangulate like mad. DFER president Joe Williams penned a very public letter that touched all the bases: decrying wild-eyed Republicans, defending unions and positioning DFER as the voice of wisdom and pragmatism.

Williams wrote, “How do we [at DFER] keep the political focus on providing a quality education for all students at a time when some Republican leaders appear to be primarily salivating at the chance to whack a significant political opponent?” He took pains to point out that, unlike the evil Republicans, “We believe that teacher unions have a crucial voice that should be heard in education debates.” In fact, “we’re kind of creeped out by some of what we are seeing and hearing these days in the Heartland.”

So much for the vaunted bipartisanship of education reform. Turns out that DFER is all for bipartisanship on things like teacher evaluation and pay, so long as Republicans support new spending, don’t mess with the unions and take care to respect progressive priorities. Indeed, Williams bemoans the Wisconsin dispute as a distraction from talk about teacher evaluation and school improvement.

It’s not that the DFER stance is unreasonable. It’s a sensible stance for progressives interested in both school reform and Democratic electoral prospects. What’s peculiar is the befuddlement that conservative reformers might disagree with the DFER party line when it comes to collective bargaining or government spending.

The public debate in the past decade has been impoverished by the dearth of tough-minded conservatives willing to talk bluntly about public sector reform. It’s healthy to have those folks back in the mix, and unfortunate that DFER is so eager to score political points rather than seek common ground on school reform.

It’s not yet clear who emerged victorious from the sparring over Walker’s proposals this spring, though it’s clear that Democratic reformers were thrilled by the chance to do a little fence-mending with the teacher unions. The long-term winner, though, is the American people — who get to trade the stale, banal orthodoxies of the Bush years for a bracing debate about how to organize the public sector in the 21st century.

It’s hard to think of a debate that’s more urgent, or more relevant to reforming our nation’s public schools.