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Bernie, Bloomberg, Booker, and the New Politics of Education

The early days of 2020 have reminded just how profoundly education politics have shifted in the past few years. For three decades, there was a quiet assumption that education's growing economic import was pushing education politics toward the pragmatic middle. It turns out, though, that this dynamic was surprisingly fragile. The past couple weeks have put an exclamation on that.

In USA Today, Bernie Sanders recently sketched his education plan in an op-ed that took a perfunctory slam at No Child Left Behind, testing, and school choice; and then called for tripling Title I, seeking a moratorium on charter schools, providing universal, year-round free school lunches, and having Uncle Sam dramatically raise teacher pay. Sanders' bid was only the most recent bout of the one-upmanship in which the Democratic field has competed to see who can most energetically denounce "reform" and propose new education spending initiatives.

Cory Booker seems to have lost this competition, announcing last week that he is abandoning the race. Booker, whose attempt to position himself as Obama's heir had once drawn heavily on his school reform bona fides, ultimately found this record to be more baggage than boon. By last spring, Booker was running hard to the left, initially distancing himself from charter schools, before pivoting again this fall in a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate his candidacy. None of it worked, and Booker's departure is a reminder that the very kind of centrist badges that were once supposed to help candidates can, in this new hyper-polarized environment, instead weigh them down.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is wrestling with a similar version of the same dynamic. Bloomberg is unapologetically embracing charter schools, telling the NAACP national convention this summer that New York's experience shows that a charter sector marked by careful authorization and rigorous oversight can yield "incredibly impressive" results. In another campaign cycle, this all might have helped position a billionaire with staunchly progressive social views on issues like abortion and gun control as a bold, independent thinker. In this contest, Bloomberg's education record is just one more reason he's been decried as a Democrat-in-name-only by party activists.

This is all pretty remarkable. After languishing as a nonissue for national candidates for most of the nation's history, education's profile in national politics has grown to take on a larger, symbolic role over the past three decades. In 1988, George H.W. Bush's pledge to be "the education president" was part of his attempt to present himself as a "kinder, gentler" conservative. In 1992, Bill Clinton made his passion for education reform central to his promise that he wasn't a tax-and-spend Democrat but was interested in promoting responsibility, fostering opportunity, and doing right by those who "work hard and play by the rules."

Those campaigns set a pattern in which education was an outsized piece of how candidates like George W. Bush and Barack Obama would later woo "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads." Republicans used education to show compassion, a commitment to the role of community institutions, and that they were sincere about their commitment to equal opportunity. Democrats used it to show their independence from the teachers' unions and that they were more interested in offering a hand up than in providing handouts.

For these three decades, education carried a consistently bipartisan cast. Even as politics grew more polarized, that remained broadly true. Most in the policy world operated on the reflexive assumption that these trends would continue to operate in tandem. The logic was sound enough: As education became more important in the broader economy, national candidates would feel obliged to signal their pragmatism.

Well, today, neither Republicans nor Democrats are all that concerned about combating familiar tropes, assuaging the middle, or signaling pragmatism.

One consequence is that education is now playing an amped-up role in primary campaigns; it did for Trump and Sanders in 2016 and it's true across the Democratic field this year. For decades, even during primary season, education was mostly a way to play up a candidate's electability—not to excite the base. We saw this when Trump hammered Jeb Bush with the Common Core in 2016. And we've seen it as Democrats have raced to one-up each other when it comes to free college, loan forgiveness, and teacher pay. Contrast all that with George W. Bush pitching Republicans on ambitious federal legislation or Obama, in the heat of the 2008 Democratic primaries, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he opposed vouchers but would reconsider if convinced that "the experiment works."

Today, high-profile education positions are being crafted with an eye not to the persuadable middle, but to the party's base. That's new. The information economy means that education will continue to grow in importance, but we can no longer assume that this will breed pragmatism or statesmanship. Instead, as politics have become more tribal, education's very import has made it an appealing way to signal the base.

All this means that the Trump administration's polarizing approach to education is no aberration. Rather, it may be the new normal. Whether Trump or a Democrat claims the White House in 2020, it will be harder to reach across the aisle to forge education policy. Winning candidates will be further apart and less inclined to bridge the partisan divide, and the rewards for ideological purity will make it hard to justify compromise. After an era framed by massive, bipartisan education legislation, we're only starting to glimpse what's ahead.

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