Reformers and Educators Can Stand With Hillary Clinton

Kudos to Hillary Clinton. After some anti-charter rhetoric earlier in the campaign she had the guts to tell 7,000 members of the the National Education Association that if charter schools "get it right," we should "figure out what's working and share it with schools across America," adding, "Rather than starting from ideology, let's start from what's best for kids."

Amazingly, some members booed this fairly benign statement, though NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia agreed with Clinton. She conceded that, "There are some successful charters. Let's look at what makes them work."

Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, welcomed Clinton's remarks Tuesday, saying, "We were happy to see her specifically affirm her support for high-quality public charter schools. Her statements today reiterate her commitment to reform."

Clinton also promised the union that, "Educators will have a partner in the White House, and you'll always have a seat at the table." She may have been subtly drawing a contrast with the administration she served with, but the truth is teachers unions have enjoyed unrestricted access to team Obama. Moreover, they largely embraced its reform agenda until it was time to actually implement and things got messy at the local level.

In her speech to the NEA, she promised lots of things that teachers want: higher teacher salaries, more and better professional development, loan forgiveness, preschool, and social supports for children at risk. Most reformers support much of this to one degree or another though we think accountability goes hand in hand with more resources.

At one time, Clinton would have agreed. As a senator, she voted for No Child Left Behind so she is on record in favor of test-based accountability. Nevertheless, in introducing Clinton, NEA president Eskelsen Garcia said, "Hillary sees our students as whole human beings not as test scores."

That puts her in the same category with pretty much every education reformer I know, including President Obama who called for less testing and signed a new federal law that encourages accountability systems based on factors in addition to test scores.

Regardless, no one expects Clinton to push hard on accountability because, under the new law, Washington has less power to drive accountability. The next president will watch from afar while states and districts do as they please with their students. Some states will protect kids and educate them to high standards and some won't.

Efforts by the Obama administration to keep some teeth in the new law's regulations are drawing a lot of pushback from Republicans on Capitol Hill. With only so much political capital to expend, this might not be President Clinton's preferred fight. Either way, the real fights are at the state level and are already underway in places like New York and California.

At the end of the day, the best and only hope for meaningful accountability is if parents demand it. It's more likely, however, that parents will continue to vote with their feet and enroll their kids in charter schools or private schools or homeschool them. Today, about 1 in 6 school-age kids has opted out of the traditional public school system and the numbers are growing. Parents have tasted choice and they are not going backwards.

Given the promise of more resources, the big question is whether Hillary Clinton can convince middle class America to pay for better schools serving the nation's poorest students. The trends around the country are not very promising. Today, over 30 states still fund their schools at pre-2008 levels and recent funding debates in Washington, New Jersey, Kansas and Illinois suggest that the public is not in a generous mood.

Today, for the first time in history, children of color are a majority of the public school population as are children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. In a system that is Blacker, Browner and poorer, and a middle class that is increasingly squeezed, it's naive to expect more local and state funding for public education serving disadvantaged children.

What a candidate promises and a president delivers are always two different things, but at the very least Hillary Clinton's positions on education reform offer a little something to please both reformers and educators. That's a lot more than can be said of her opponent.