by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Last week, the education-reform movement was given reason to despair when the release of the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) yielded dismal results, continuing a decade-long swoon in student performance. The 2019 NAEP, better known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows that the steady gains made in reading and math achievement in the 1990s and early 2000s stopped around 2009, and that achievement in both has flat-lined since.
Many culprits for this decade of stalled progress have been suggested, ranging from the Common Core to the Great Recession. We’d like to offer one more.
The U.S. is distinctive for its sprawling, decentralized system of schools, which are governed in large part by 50 legislatures and more than 14,000 democratically controlled school districts.
This means that, for better or worse, educational improvement is always a political project. The failure to improve schooling is thus, in part, inevitably a political failure. After all, improving schools nationwide requires enacting reforms across an array of contexts, and then executing, supporting, and sustaining those reforms in a patchwork of red and blue communities. This Tocquevillian challenge can be answered only with a broad, bipartisan coalition. We suspect that the dismal results recorded by the NAEP are partially due to a once-bipartisan school-reform community’s hard turn to the left.
Today, education-reform organizations and the foundations that fund them are overwhelmingly populated by Democrats. Earlier this year, we analyzed the campaign contributions of the employees at a wide swath of education-reform organizations, including Teach For America and major charter-school operators. More than 90 percent of the thousands of contributions we studied, made over many years, flowed to Democrats. It appears that school reformers today are more uniformly partisan than even the National Education Association.