Reform-oriented Democrats had once hoped that Hillary Clinton might follow in the tradition of Democratic centrists like Arne Duncan, distancing herself from teachers’ unions and championing modest efforts to shake up America’s underperforming schools. But at last night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton reinforced the surprisingly anti-reform posture she has been taking for most of the 2016 campaign. U.S. News summarizes her disappointing exchange with CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper on education reform:
Cooper said that union rules often make it impossible to fire bad teachers, meaning disadvantaged kids are sometimes taught by the least qualified educators.
But Clinton, who has won powerful endorsements from both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, danced around the question.
“A lot of what has happened and honestly it really pains me, a lot of people have [been] blaming and scapegoating teachers because they don’t want to put the money into the schools system that deserve the support that comes from the government doing its job,” she said.
If Clinton were facing competition for the Democratic nomination from someone other than a Democratic socialist, her opponent could have pointed out that America’s per-pupil spending on education has been steadily increasing for decades, that it already exceeds that of most other developed democracies, that Americans are spending more years in school than ever before—and that, nonetheless, the productivity of our workforce is stagnating. He or she could also have pointed out that there is abundant evidence that firing bad teachers—who have more job security than any other comparably situated professionals—has dramatically improved outcomes for students, and that teachers unions have a history of resisting educational experiments that have worked wonders for the most vulnerable students. Finally, if Clinton’s rival were feeling especially ambitious, he or she could have reminded viewers that teachers’ unions have essentially captured many cash-strapped state governments, demanding huge pensions that suck resources away from public services that serve Democratic constituencies.
Maybe this would have been too much to expect in a Democratic primary, where unions have major clout (and students and low-performing schools have none). But on the off-chance that the Republicans nominate a candidate who is actually fluent in such pressing policy issues, Clinton will be sure to face such critiques in the general.