Though the platform’s policies on education may seem “woke” or trendy, they would actually steer Biden away from the coalition of Black and low-income voters who brought him the nomination. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise — given that two of the eight members of the task force are the heads of the two major teachers unions — but Biden is being misled.
In particular, statements on standardized testing and public charter schools reflect the positions of the union leaders more than they do the students and families who benefit from them. Let’s start with the one on standardized tests. The authors write:
The evidence from nearly two decades of education reforms that hinge on standardized test scores shows clearly that high-stakes annual testing has not led to enough improvement in outcomes for students or for schools, and can lead to discrimination against students, particularly students with disabilities, students of color, low-income students, and English language learners.
The first part is a subjective judgment that leans heavily on the phrase “enough improvement.” Contrary to widespread perception, policies that attempt to hold schools and districts accountable for the academic gains of their students have produced meaningful improvements for students, even in subjects such as science that were not directly included.
But the second clause is the real red flag. Not only have education reforms focused on reading and math scores produced gains overall, but those gains have been concentrated among traditionally underserved student groups precisely because the reforms required schools to focus on the lowest-performing groups of students.
Were those gains enough? Of course not. Black, Hispanic, low-income, special education and other historically marginalized students deserve far better than they get today. Yet that’s exactly the point. These are the students who need the most help and the ones who benefit the most from an intense focus on equitable results. For example, when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio dismantled the city’s accountability system, it was the students in the lowest-performing schools who suffered.
The platform task force made a similar error when its members turned to the research on public charter schools. They write, “Research has shown that, on average, charters are no better or worse than traditional public schools.”
Again, there’s a kernel of truth to their summary. A national study from 2009 did find that charter schools were no better, on average, than traditional public schools at the time. But when the same researchers looked again in 2013, they found a marked improvement in quality in the charter sector. Today, urban charter schools are among the very best public schools in the country.
But the task force obscured the most important results on charter schools with the words “on average.” Both of the studies cited above and numerous others have found that public charter schools significantly boost outcomes for students in urban areas and especially for Black, Hispanic and low-income students.
In other words, Biden’s platform committee is not only mischaracterizing the evidence in these two areas. It is doing so in a way that would damage the students and families that Biden, and Democratic voters, say they want to serve.
This isn’t just an academic debate within the Democratic Party. Polls show that Black and Hispanic voters support standardized testing and charters schools, and President Trump is already campaigning on Biden’s previous statements on charter schools. Trump appears to be attempting to copy the playbook from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who narrowly squeezed into the governor’s office in 2018 with the support of 100,000 Black “school choice moms” who feared Democrats would end a popular school-choice program there.
Biden still has time to change the direction of his campaign. Are teacher unions really going to take their chances on another Trump term? Besides, the Trump administration has not exactly been a consistent supporter of charter schools and is increasingly at odds with the public on education issues.
School accountability policies and charter schools are not sufficient, on their own, to close persistent performance gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. But it would be silly to argue — as the Democratic platform committee implied — that any education policy must eradicate all achievement gaps or else be considered a failure.
Political battles are especially intense this year. But in 2020, of all years, underprivileged students in our nation’s public schools deserve a president who will fight for them. If Biden sacrifices effective education policies to placate teacher union officials, our most at-risk students will pay the price.