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Has 'Education Reform' Lost Its Special Place in States?

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After a quarter-century of holding an unusual place in state politics, education policy's special status could be over.

That's one big conclusion from Matthew Grossmann, the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University and Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. In a book about red-state political trends and Republican policy goals, Grossmann says that conservatives for years built on ideas sourced to liberals and left-leaning think tanks, with the support of the last five presidents—but that stagnant or slow-growing education budgets and political backlash in states has finally fractured that alliance. 

"Republicans are losing their Democratic partners for their preferred education policy direction—that may signal the end of its rise," Grossmann, an associate professor at Michigan State, wrote in an article on the Cambridge University Press website discussing his book. 

Grossmann isn't the only or the first observer to draw a similar conclusion.For example, Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote in 2013 that education has moved from being primarily the provenance of local interests, to being increasingly directed by state and federal politicians who are more mindful of national political trends (what Henig calls "general-purpose politics").

But Grossmann does put a statistical twist on his argument. He highlights 2018 research from Jacob M. Grumbach at the University of California, Berkeley, showing that among 16 policy areas ranging from taxes to drugs from 1970 to 2014, only education and criminal justice defied a correlation between party control of states and policy outcomes. Within the K-12 sphere, Grumbach's research looked at charter school laws, school spending, and school choice, as well as higher education spending. In one section, Grumbach writes that, "In education, Democratic state governments pass school choice and charter school laws, and spend at similar rates to Republican state governments."

In an interview, Grossmann told me that it's entirely possible that these policy shifts will persist. But with invigorated teachers demanding big changes to what kind of resources states provide schools, and a 2020 Democratic presidential field that's largely disowned Obama's key education initiatives, the spread of those policies may be checked, he said.

'Democrats Were Innovators'

So just how much have these "education reform" initiatives lost their mojo, or even receded? 

In some cases, "checked" may be an understatement. Last month, a National Council on Teacher Quality report indicated that since 2015, 30 states have rolled back at least one element of their prior teacher evaluation policies. This at least partially reverses a trend over previous years in which numerous states adopted test-score-based teacher evaluations. (Teacher evaluations, to be fair, were not included in the Grumbach study we mentioned earlier.) And GOP-held states, under pressure from teacher activists, have moved to increase K-12 spending in some cases. Education spending has been on the rise since the Great Recession, although some analysts say it still lingers below pre-recession levels in many places.

On the other hand, charter school enrollment has steadily grown for years. Gov. Bill Haslam, got plenty of praise from Obama administration education officials for what his state did on K-12; his successor, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, just received an award from a charter school group. The number of states that don't allow charters continues to shrink; no state has reversed itself and decided to shut down all charters. And states like Florida continue to expand school choice in general, including private school options. 

Some Democrats have long argued that regardless of who implements them, policies that expand charters and ensure greater opportunity for disadvantaged students are objectively good. I asked Grossmann about the idea that Democrats who support such policies should continue to take credit for them and their durability, irrespective of whether Republicans also back them. 

"Democrats were innovators in the beginning," Grossmann responded. "It's just that since then, the trends have been mostly that more conservative states have adopted (them) more aggressively."

Image via Getty Images


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