Clinton Abandons the Middle on Education

logoBy Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West

Most rank-and-file Democrats disagree with the party platform.

BN-PJ622_peters_P_20160812144348Throughout this campaign season, Democrats have feigned confusion about why disaffected Republicans have not embraced Hillary Clinton, given Donald Trump’s character defects. But the K-12 education plank in the Democratic Party platform does a lot to explain the hesitance. The party’s promises seem designed to satisfy teachers unions rather than to appeal to ordinary Democrats, much less opposition moderates.

Democrats say that they will “recognize and honor all the professionals who work in public schools,” including “teachers, education support professionals, and specialized staff,” suggesting that every teacher does a terrific job. The party also promises that it will “end the test-and-punish version of accountability.” Only charter schools seem to need more scrutiny: The platform includes a full paragraph of ideas to regulate them.

Democrats nationwide seem to have a different view. Like Republicans, Democrats have a positive view of most teachers, but their confidence does not extend to all of them. Democrats and Republicans both think that nearly 60% of teachers in their local schools are either excellent or good, and another quarter at least satisfactory. But Democrats find up to 15% of teachers unsatisfactory. It doesn’t seem like rank-and-file Democrats are ready to honor all teachers and simply trust them.

These are some of the data Education Next reveals in a survey to be published next week. Over the course of May and June our publication surveyed 700 teachers and 3,500 other Americans. The results demonstrate how out of touch the Democratic Party has become on education.

In contrast with platform-committee Democrats, 80% of rank-and-file adherents who took a position on the issue said they backed the federal requirement that “all students be tested in math and reading each year,” with only 20% disagreeing. Republicans had similar responses: 74% and 26%, respectively.

As for punishing and rewarding teachers, 57% of Democrats nationwide said they supported “basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn.” Fifty-nine percent said teacher tenure should be eliminated.

For their platform, party insiders voted to “support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.” But Democrats nationwide do not share this view. When asked whether they favored “letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests,” 71% of Democrats said they did not. So did 69% of Republicans.

Democrats in Philadelphia also suggested that they “will end the school-to-prison pipeline by opposing discipline policies which disproportionately affect African-Americans and Latinos.” But 61% of Democrats around the country oppose federal policies that “prevent schools from expelling and suspending black and Hispanic students at higher rates than other students.” So do 86% of Republicans, and a majority of both African-American and Hispanic respondents who take a side.

Democratic honchos qualify their support for charter schools by asserting that they “should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools”—not a good sign since it is impossible for charters to enroll more students without contraction elsewhere. But when Democrats nationwide were asked whether they supported “the formation of charter schools,” 58% of those with a position said yes, as did 74% of Republicans.

It isn’t clear who wrote these lines in the Democratic Party platform. But teachers unions have for years battled testing, accountability and merit pay. They push parental “opt out” as a backdoor way to kill testing, and the unions are doing their best to prevent charter schools from expanding. On discipline policies, the support is coming from civil-rights groups and the Obama administration.

If the views of rank-and-file Democrats don’t count, and party leaders care little about the political center, it’s hard to see how Mrs. Clinton could turn victory into a governing majority.

Mr. Peterson is a senior editor at Education Next, where Mr. West is editor in chief. Both are professors at Harvard University and fellows at the Hoover Institution.

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