An Imaginary Education Peace Summit
Solutions we can all agree on
Welcome to my education peace summit—a gathering of the major factions in our country’s K–12 political wars. Given that this summit is happening completely in my head, I get to set the rules.
Rule number one: We’re here to discuss only urban education. We’ll hold separate summits for suburban and rural schools.
Rule number two: Given that this is a summit about urban education, I have not invited the far-right anti-CRT crowd. They’ll get a prominent seat at my suburban summit. Don’t forget to bring your earplugs and CBD gummies to that one.
Rule number three: We assume that our attendees—the powerful forces in our country’s education wars—have been completely transparent and genuine about what they want:
The teacher’s unions and affluent progressives want greater teacher pay, better working conditions, and well-funded neighborhood schools. They are primarily concerned with resources (i.e., money) and protections for workers. They are averse to high-stakes testing and most measures to use data to reward and hold teachers and schools accountable based on measurable performances. This group includes people such as Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Progressive education reformers want a world in which every child and family has access to a measurably high-performing school, whether charter or district. They want to weaken district and neighborhood school boundaries to allow families to attend whatever school they prefer, they want more alternative school models (charters, learning hubs, etc.), and they favor using student testing and teacher evaluations to measure student learning and teacher/school performance. This group includes Senator Cory Booker, Governor Jared Polis, and many Obama-era education leaders such as myself.
Center-right education reformers would expand that choice to include government-funded vouchers for private schools, and they want to make the system more efficient—spending less to get greater results. For this reason, they’re extremely skeptical of bureaucracy. Some of them are sympathetic to the anti-CRT crowd, but they aren’t principally motivated by the issue. This group includes governors past and present like Jeb Bush, Charlie Baker, and Bill Haslam.
Each of these groups would protest how I describe them, arguing that I’ve greatly simplified their views. Of course there are affluent progressives who care about efficiency or reformers who want schools to be well-funded. But I am only attempting to capture their top priorities.
Also, to make this discussion easy to follow, I will lump together the progressive and center-right reformers into one “reformer” camp, since they usually work together.
Why would these forces collaborate? In the real world, they probably wouldn’t. But if there was ever a time to come together, it’s now. We face an unprecedented teacher and support staff shortage fueled by rising costs of living, pandemic burnout, and low morale. More importantly, students, especially the most at-risk who were already struggling before the pandemic, have fallen dangerously behind over the last two years. A recent study cited in The Atlantic shows that, by fall 2021, students in high-poverty schools lost the equivalent of 22 weeks of instruction. On top of this, traditional public schools are threatened by declining enrollment as parents opt for homeschooling, virtual schooling, and other alternative educational models. These issues aren’t endangering all school models equally (enrollment decline, for example, is not an issue for most charter schools), but every corner of the sector is faced with some form of emergency. Theoretically, this should make everyone more amenable to compromise.
With that spirit in mind, let’s get down to business. What could a peace treaty look like?
To start, I wouldn’t oversell the impact of our eventual agreement. This would be more like a treaty to cool tensions between adversaries and solve discrete problems—not an end to the war itself. In that sense, this would be more like the SALT and START agreements between the U.S. and the USSR. I wouldn’t expect the Paris Peace Treaties or the Peace of Westphalia.
Here are a few areas where I believe we can make progress.
Each side should care about our historic teacher shortages. This is a given for the union crowd but is equally true for reformers. Charter schools need excellent teachers, too, and the reforms they want for the traditional system are only as good as the people who carry them out. The center-right Chamber of Commerce types should also be on board, as they depend upon high-quality educators to attract workers and businesses.
It’s worth noting that an attitudinal shift has occurred within the ranks of education reformers over the past decade. When I first started in that line of work (around 2010), reformers predominantly spoke about identifying low-performing teachers and holding them accountable (i.e., firing them). This was the era dominated by leaders including former Washington DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine brandishing a broom for an article about her “battle against bad teachers.” She even fired a school principal on national television.
Those days are gone. You rarely hear reformers talk about firing their way to excellence, in part because of how bad the politics of that prior focus were, but mostly because there’s no one out there to replace the teachers they’d fire. They still protect their hiring and firing flexibility in charter schools, but they haven’t done much beyond that on this issue for some time. That shift removes one obstacle to compromise for the teacher shortage issue.
The easiest issue both sides should agree on is the need to raise teacher salaries, especially in the early stages of the profession. There’s some evidence that teacher salaries have not, over the past decade, kept pace with inflation or the growth of salaries for other highly educated professions. Some writers have pointed out that much of that discrepancy can be accounted for by ballooning benefits, which have often been a top priority for union negotiators who largely answer to their older members who are either approaching or already in retirement. I doubt we’d be able to get the unions to stop catering to older members, but if they don’t make the profession more attractive to new entrants, they will soon face even starker drops in membership. This means they have ample incentive to invest more resources in those new to the field. Reformers should be eager partners in this endeavor, as many shift resources to offer higher relative salaries for charter school teachers in their early years compared to their district counterparts. That’s what I did when I ran my schools, in part because the more experienced teachers were often impossible to attract because they didn’t want to walk away from their pensions.
I also believe there’s a possible collaboration for teacher housing. Two weeks ago, I had coffee with a school principal who complained that she couldn’t attract teachers because of runaway housing costs. In her city, Nashville, the starting teacher salary is $46,271 but the median home price is $405,000. The principal said that the only teachers she’d been able to attract had either family money subsidizing their professional income or spouses who made significantly more than them. This disparity is not sustainable for the profession, and it’s certainly not a recipe for increasing diversity. Every city in America should build affordable housing for entry-level teachers, as Los Angeles, Newark, and Asheville have done. The National Education Association has stoutly supported this idea, as have most reformers I know. The collaboration here could work something like this: Unions, which usually have tremendous influence over local city councils and mayors, could vote to set aside city-owned land for affordable housing for teachers. This is what Los Angeles Unified School District did with the Sage Park Apartments at Gardena High School. Reformers, who are usually friendly with the business community, can work to raise the capital to build the housing. Once the philanthropists make their money back, the building can revert to the city. The housing could be available to teachers from both traditional and charter public schools in proportion to their total student enrollment in the city.
Reformers are obsessed with the quality of educators, which we usually measure through performance on standardized tests and qualitative evaluations. Teacher’s unions and affluent progressives resist the notion that great teaching can be measured and view testing and evaluation as punitive. This would seem to be an impasse, but there is more common ground here than conventional wisdom might suggest. For one, all sides of this debate agree that there’s a diversity problem in teaching and are moving urgently to bring more educators of color into this work. They frame the issue differently, but they are essentially all acknowledging that a representative teaching force is, all things being equal, more effective for kids than one that isn’t. Additionally, while the unions and reformers may disagree about what to do with teachers once they’re working, they both agree that we need to incentivize the most talented young people in our country to join the ranks of teaching.
What would an alliance here look like? The most ambitious idea would be to create a national service program that recruits, rewards, and incentivizes college graduates to enter the teaching profession. We could tie this to student loan forgiveness, offering full forgiveness to anyone who dedicates five years to teaching in Title I schools. This would likely have an outsized impact on teacher diversity, as Black and Brown student loan borrowers are particularly burdened with student debt.
Reformers are generally skeptical of big central office staffs and most rules that hamstring schools and educators. Teacher’s unions are skeptical of any rollbacks of regulations that they believe protect teachers, but they are amendable to changes that make teachers’ lives easier. And depending on the local context, they have varying allegiances to central office staff. Despite these obstacles, we are already seeing change through necessity. Some states, including Illinois, are relaxing certification rules and lowering licensing fees to lower the barriers to entry for more teachers in the profession. This is something many reformers, who aren’t sold on the predictive power of licensing exams, have been advocating for a while. Unions shouldn’t really stand in the way of these changes, as it can only serve to increase their ranks.
A similar phenomenon is happening with central office staff. Los Angeles Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently announced plans to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies by reassigning school staff to teaching positions for the remainder of the year. In normal times, the union might protest this move (as they often represent many of the non-teaching staff as well), but they didn’t even offer a comment on the record. I suspect this is because the rank and file teachers are the ones who suffer most from the shortage (having to take on larger classrooms and extra duty) and would likely welcome the help.
I’d like to see these central office and non-instructional staff reductions be permanent. There’s growing evidence that ballooning school budgets in major districts have gone disproportionately to non-instructional staff. In New York City, from 2002 to 2019, the inflation-adjusted public education revenue grew 68% (the highest in the country) while its non-instructional staff ballooned (side note: benefits costs grew an incredible 147% during that time).
Alternative School Models
This one is, admittedly, the hardest. Teacher’s unions have sworn a blood oath against charter schools and vouchers—and have done little to help alternative learning models such as San Francisco’s community learning hubs. That’s because unions are generally skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, any form of school that doesn’t employ union teachers. White affluent progressives, who are generally allied with unions, are extremely protective of neighborhood school boundaries, magnet schools, and gifted and talented programs—and view charters and vouchers as a threat to all three. (The reformer in me can’t help but point out the hypocrisy of these Bernie Democrats who support their form of school choice while opposing it for Black and Brown families, but I digress….)
Yet there is some hope here. Both unions and affluent progressives have pockets amongst their ranks who are clamoring for more extended virtual school options. Some union members are still skittish about Covid and want a safe alternative to returning to schools. Some of them may also want to join the pajama class and teach from anywhere (and as someone who spent a big chunk of the pandemic in Costa Rica, I can’t blame them). Affluent progressives have similar dynamics, wanting the flexibility to access schooling from their second homes and vacation destinations. It’s the reformers who are likely the most skeptical of permanent virtual offerings, believing them to be less rigorous and particularly poor at educating the most vulnerable. But it’s hard to imagine reformers standing in the way of the expansion of virtual options, as they’d likely see that these models are more efficient and more cost effective for certain segments of the population. Given the technological innovation that’s happened in and around the charter sector, it’s also likely that virtual schools—even if unionized—have incorporated and will continue to incorporate more best practices and innovations from high-performing charters than traditional brick and mortar schools do.
The sweet spot here could be non-profit–driven learning hubs that offer a hybrid of in-person support and virtual learning. One organization, Oakland Reach, has seen success with this model and recently earned a seven-figure donation from McKenzie Bezos for expansion. The group plans to use the funds to train parents and community members to work in schools in support roles.
This gets to perhaps the most important thing all sides should agree on: tutoring. According to data from FutureEd, school systems are on track to spend up to $3.6 billion on tutoring over the next two years. This is one of the most effective things we can do to help address the massive learning gaps that accelerated over the pandemic. But the money alone won’t be enough. Tutoring is one of the only proven interventions that consistently yields positive student achievement gains, but it’s incredibly labor-intensive. Thankfully, data suggests that paraprofessionals can be just as effective in this work as certified teachers. Many of these support workers are members of traditional teachers unions (they are the fastest-growing chapter of the United Federation of Teachers), which means you can imagine unions getting on board with using non-teachers to perform this work.
Reform Standards and Testing
I hesitate to mention this since the battle over Common Core was so painful (see here for a window into my own personal frustrations with that transition). However, throughout most of the critical battles over standards, some unions, progressive reformers, and center-right leaders were actually aligned. Many unions wound up abandoning the standards when they became unpopular with the extreme left and suburban soccer moms—and some center-right leaders abandoned the standards when the standards became a political piñata for the tea party.
Prominent progressive leaders have been trying to capitalize on pandemic-era moratoriums on testing to eliminate the use of standardized testing altogether. Thankfully, those moves face significant hurdles in federal law, which requires states to administer assessments in grades 3–8. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t tinker with the tests to make them more effective. One move more states should consider is what Florida recently did: Break up the high-stakes end-of-year assessments into a series of shorter tests administered throughout the school year. Reformers should welcome this, because it’s largely what they do anyway through quarterly assessments such as the NWEA MAP, which most high-performing charter schools take regularly throughout the year. This approach is beneficial because teachers and administrators can respond to data on a continual basis—not just at the end of the year when they are largely helpless to do anything about it. Unions and affluent progressives should support this shift, as it could lower the stakes—and the amount of time taken—from the end-of-year portion of the test.
Tax Private Schools
Imagine if the IRS allowed me to write off my Soho House membership as a tax-deductible charitable donation. That’s essentially what our country does with many private schools. These institutions, which are essentially elite private clubs, raise ridiculous tax-free sums into their endowments. Deerfield Academy, for example, has an endowment of over $500 million for just 571 boarding students and 84 day students. Exeter’s is $1.3 billion for 1,100 students. Why isn’t that money taxed? What public good do these institutions serve?
I believe both progressive reformers and Bernie types should be able to get behind fundamental reforms to this system. My idea is to strip any of these schools of their tax-exempt status if at least 50% of their students aren’t from low-income backgrounds. This way, we could force these schools to play a role in solving systemic inequity at least by funding programs that do. I could see teacher’s unions getting behind this if we promise to invest the proceeds in raises for teachers. The center-right business-friendly reformers may hate this idea, but they may be outnumbered.
This concludes the official portion of my imaginary education peace summit. I hope to see you at the afterparty in the main ballroom at 8 p.m. Make sure to bring your credentials because there’s rumors that our neighbors in the Imaginary Midwest Home Insurance Conference could try to crash our party.