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Republicans or Democrats?: No Difference for Educators

For about thirty years now, public education as well as its teachers and students have been the focus of an accountability era driven by recurring calls for and the implementation of so-called higher standards and incessant testing. At two points during this era, educators could blame Ronald Reagan’s administration for feeding the media frenzy around the misleading A Nation at Risk and George W. Bush’s administration for federalizing the accountability era with No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—both Republican administrations.

For those who argued that Republicans and Democrats were different sides of the same political coin beholden to corporate interests, education advocates could point to Republicans with an accusatory finger and claim the GOP was anti-public education while also endorsing Democrats as unwavering supporters of public education. To claim Republicans and Democrats were essentially the same was left to extremists and radicals, it seemed.

As we approach the fall of 2012 and the next presidential election, however, educators and advocates for public education have found that the position of the extremists—Republicans and Democrats are the same—has come true under the Barack Obama administration.

Educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators, public education, or teachers unions.

Discourse, Policy, and How Democrats Are Failing Education

Behind the historical mask that Democrats support strongly public education and even teachers specifically and workers broadly, the Obama administration has presented a powerful and misleading education campaign that is driven by Obama as the good cop and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the bad cop. Obama Good Cop handles the discourse that appeals to educators by denouncing the rising test culture in 2011:

What is true, though, is, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic.

Yet, simultaneously, Secretary Duncan Bad Cop was endorsing and the USDOE was implementing Race to the Top, creating provisions for states to opt out of NCLB, and endorsing Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—each of which increases both the amount of standardized testing and the high-stakes associated with those tests by expanding the accountability from schools and students to teachers.

Under Obama, Democratic education policy and agendas, embodied by Duncan, have created a consistently inconsistent message. More recently, Obama has shifted into campaign mode and once again offered conflicting claims about education—endorsing a focus on reducing class size (despite huge cuts for years in state budgets that have eliminated teachers and increased class size, which Bill Gates endorses) and making a pitch to suport teachers unions and even increasing spending on education, leading Diane Ravitch to ponder:

Well, it is good to hear the rhetoric. That’s a change. We can always hope that he means it. But that, of course, would mean ditching Race to the Top and all that absurd rightwing rhetoric about how schools can fix poverty, all by themselves.

Throughout Obama’s term, Obama’s discourse has been almost directly contradicted by Duncan’s discourse and the USDOE’s policies. Obama tended to state that teachers were the most important in-school influence on student learning while Duncan tends to continue omitting the “in-school” qualifier, but these nuances of language are of little value since the USDOE under Obama has an agenda nearly indistinguishable from Republican agendas:

• Promoting that all states should adopt CCSS and the necessary increase of testing and textbook support to follow.

• Endorsing market dynamics and school choice by embracing the charter school movement, specifically corporate-style charters such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).

• Embracing and promoting “no excuses” ideologies for school reform and school cultures.

• Criticizing directly and indirectly public school teachers and perpetuating the “bad” teacher myth by calling for changes in teacher evaluations and compensation, disproportionately based on student test scores.

• Funding and endorsing the spread of test-based accountability to departments and colleges of education involved in teacher certification.

• Funding and endorsing the de-professionalization of teaching through support for Teach for America.

• Appealing to the populist message about choice by failing to confront the rise of “parent trigger” laws driven by corporate interests posing as concerned parents.

If my claim that Republicans and Democrats are different sides of the same misguided education reform coin still appears to be the claim of an extremist, the last point above should be examined carefully.

Note, for example, the connection between the issues endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and the anti-union sentiment joined with endorsing the next misleading Waiting for “Superman”Won’t Back Down.

The Democratic National Convention will be home to DFER, Parent Revolution, and Students First to promote Won’t Back Down as if this garbled film is a documentary—including a platform for Michelle Rhee.

There is nothing progressive about the education reform agenda under the Obama administration, nothing progressive about the realities behind Obama’s or Duncan’s discourse, nothing progressive about Rhee, Gates, or the growing legions of celebrity education reformers.

If the Democratic Party were committed to a progressive education platform, we would hear and see policy seeking ways to fund fully public schools, rejecting market solutions to social problems, supporting the professionalization of teachers, embracing the power and necessity of collective bargaining and tenure, protecting students from the negative impact of testing and textbook corporations, distancing themselves from Rhee-like conservatives in progressive clothing, and championing above everything else democratic ideals.

Instead, the merging of the education agenda between Democrats and Republicans is Orwellian, but it real, as Ravitch warned early in Obama’s administration:

This rhetoric represented a remarkable turn of events. It showed how the politics of education had been transformed. . . .Slogans long advocated by policy wonks on the right had migrated to and been embraced by policy wonks on the left. When Democrat think tanks say their party should support accountability and school choice, while rebuffing the teachers’ unions, you can bet that something has fundamentally changed in the political scene. (p. 22)

In August of 2012, educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators—and this is but one symptom of a larger disease killing the hope and promise of democracy in the U.S.

This tragic fact is the inevitable result of the historical call for teachers not to be political. Now that educators have no major party to support, the failure of that call is more palpable than ever.

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About The Author

Associate Professor

P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers), in which he authored the first volume—Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (2010). He has served on major committees with NCTE and co-edits The South Carolina English Teacher for SCCTE. Recent books include Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education (Information Age Publishing, 2012) and Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010).He has also published books on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Ralph Ellison. His scholarly work includes dozens of works in major journals—English Journal, English Education, Souls, Notes on American Literature, Journal of Educational Controversy, Journal of Teaching Writing, and others. His commentaries have been included in Room for Debate (The New York Times), The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), The Guardian (UK), truthout, Education Week, The Daily Censored, OpEdNews, The State (Columbia, SC), The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) and The Greenville News (Greenville, SC). His work can be followed at and @plthomasEdD on twitter.

Number of Entries : 81
  • Patrick Fleming

    Hello. I have been wondering for a while why, as educators, we do not seem understand that exchanging these ideas between ourselves is mostly philosophical flatulance. I am tired of posting this question. Where are the unions and educational organizations? I worked my way through school, partially, as a union bricklayer during the summers. When I left the bricklayer’s union and joined the NEA my dues doubled. I remember telling my Dad, a masonry contractor, about that and we both wondered where the money went. How can the NEA just sit by and allow this to happen? Do they agree with NCLB? Where is our movie explaining the problem? Where are the national advertizements explaining what we are doing? Why do they charge so much dues and not defend the folks who are paying it? Are they on board with educational deform? Have they sold us out? My personal experience with the local branch is that they have sold us and the future out.

  • Robert

    Article makes a lot of valid points. However, the title is not supported. It should be changed to something like “No difference in Educational Policy.” However, I think there is a real difference in support for funding teachers and other public employees. The Democrats aren’t good; the Republicans would be a catastrophe.

  • Doug Harrod

    P.L. Thomas is out of touch with reality! In Wisconsin under Scott Walker teachers are labeled “TAKERS” providing no viable worth. As contracts expire they are being replaced by draconian teacher handbooks that belittle, demean and make teachers less than professionals. Without the umbrella of organized labor all workers, public and private, are at risk! Look what is happening to the economics of the 99% in the last 30 plus years as organized labor membership has decreased.

    • Paul Thomas

      How am I out of touch? I have written about and spoken out specifically the disaster in Wisconsin re: teachers. What is “out of touch” about this blog or my work?

    • Bonnie

      Sorry, Doug. I agree with your descriptions of what is happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But did you actually read the article to which you’re referring?

  • Scott

    I tend not to trust anybody these days, so this article is setting off warning sirens in my head. After dealing with the dirty tactics during the Wisconsin recall where the walker camp was sending out propaganda telling Democrats not to vote, or giving wrong dates/locations, etc., this sounds like another “Hey Dems, don’t vote for Obama because he doesn’t care” ploy. I will vote for Obama because I know what the walkers and ryans of the world are up to.

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