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The 2016 presidential elections were not exactly a high point for the two national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Leaders took heat for jumping in with what many believed was a premature endorsement of Hillary Clinton involving too few rank and file voices. So this time around, the unions have announced their intention to cast a wider net for member opinions.

I’m happy to step up. So how should a K-12 teacher score each of the many Democratic hopefuls? We are still many months out from the primaries, so we have plenty of time to settle on some criteria.

Below Basic

The Below Basic candidate thinks that charter schools are just public schools with the word “charter” in their name. They think a “merit pay” system would be great for teachers and students, and while they understand the problems teachers face in some states that created the conditions for a strike, they wish that the teachers had found some way to express their concerns without disrupting the school year. To get information about education policy, they talk to Democrats for Education Reform. They also consult with right-tilted think tanks like Fordham Institute because they’ve seen that name come up in lots of articles about education policy.

Below Basic candidates also say they understand that high stakes testing can be annoying, but, hey, testing is a part of life, and how else will you know that schools are doing a good job? They don’t have an actual education policy statement, but they do occasionally bring up A Nation at Risk and talk about “our failing schools.” They think Florida is an example of a state thriving thanks to progressive education policy.


The Basic candidate will have some articulated, but thoroughly safe positions: We need more pre-school. College is too expensive. Basic candidates don’t know much about how charter schools work, but they’re sure the for-profit ones are bad. They carefully avoid any clear statement on contentious issues like teacher strikes or the standards movement. They say mean things about Betsy DeVos, but never really specify what’s wrong with any of her preferred policies.

They talk about the importance of teachers, but they have no specifics to offer—just hopes and prayers.

They talk about the importance of teachers and how teachers should have more support and respect, but they have no specifics to offer—just hopes and prayers. They are also pretty sure that computer technology stuff should be in schools doing something, somehow, probably. They rarely discuss education on the stump, but they do have a few paragraphs about education on their website. Much of that text could have been a cut and paste from Hillary Clinton’s or Jeb Bush’s 2016 website, and they don’t see why that should be a problem. They talk about how your education shouldn’t be determined “by your zip code,” but only in terms of getting people away from that zip code, not sending more support and resources into it.


The Proficient candidate has actually done some homework. They’ve read a book or two about education reform, and they have talked to some people knowledgeable about the last twenty years of the effort pushing it. They can explain why the standards movement failed and why high stakes standardized testing is toxic. They can explain why teachers unions are valuable, and call for more support and valuing of the teachers in the country. They think the #Red4Ed strikes were about money. They understand that the last couple of decades of ed policy has been a series of bad mistakes.

They have some sense of how charter schools are exacerbating the problems of equity and segregation in this country, and they can explain why some charter policies are damaging to public schools. They have seen some education tech dog-and-pony shows and they thought those were pretty exciting, but they also express caution about students and screens. They have a whole page of their campaign website devoted to education, with a handful of very specific, hope-to-grab-some-press proposals to which your first response is, “Well, that sounds pretty good.” Then your second response is “Well, the devil is in the details.” And your third response is, “Where are the details?”


The Advanced candidate not only knows the issues but sees how they fit in a larger picture, and that education is infected with the same issues of racism and discrimination that mark our whole society. The modern charter school movement is understood as part of a larger wave of privatization that threatens to replace government by the people with ownership by the rich and powerful. Advanced candidates recognize that the teaching profession is suffering not just from low pay, but from shrinking autonomy and a lack of support for public institutions. They recognize that high stakes standardized testing is driving schools in unproductive and toxic directions. They have a plan for strengthening the profession, and it includes a plan for adding critically-lacking diversity to staff in public schools.

The Advanced candidate knows education is infected with the same issues of racism and discrimination that mark our whole society.

They grasp that ed tech is a complicated issue that promises empowerment but also threatens the erosion of teaching, a depersonalization of education, and a destruction of children’s data privacy. They get that schools in poorer communities need more support. They recognize the limits of a top-down-from-D.C. approach to education policy, and can explain the damage that such an approach has done in the past. They recognize that education is a complex and complicated sector and actually have trouble shrinking the issues down to snappy bullet points, but when they do, those points are backed up by thorough policy ideas. They have actually talked to people who work in education; they can name ten teachers, other than the ones they or their children had in school.

They can explain, in some detail, what previous administrations—including Democratic ones—have gotten wrong about education policy.

These are fairly broad categories. We need to keep watch on how the candidates handle their educational baggage. What the candidates have to say when looking backwards about previous policy positions they’ve taken will tell us a lot about how well we can trust them going forward.

Teachers have had their hearts broken before, and teachers have become used to settling for Basic candidates. Let’s hope that this cycle is different. The unions’ commitment to provoking conversation rather than stifling it should help. We’ll see.


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