For Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, filing a lawsuit against the No Child Left Behind Act must have seemed like an obvious winner. More and more attorney generals around the country were using splashy litigation to boost their profiles. (It was August 2005, and Eliot Spitzer was a lock for the governor's mansion in neighboring New York.) By taking on the increasingly unpopular Bush administration and demanding more federal funding for education, headlines and support from fellow Democrats were sure to follow. "Give us the money," Blumenthal demanded at a press conference, or relieve the state from having to test elementary school students once a year in reading and math. And for a few months after the suit was filed, it seemed to work. The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers' union, issued a laudatory press release. "Connecticut is taking a brave stand today," said the NEA's president, Reg Weaver. So far, so good.
But things soon started to go south. In November, a federal judge threw out a similar NEA-backed suit in Michigan. Then came the real blow: On January 30, 2006, the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP announced plans to intervene in the suit, representing a group of minority schoolchildren against Blumenthal. Noting that Connecticut had "the worst gap in achievement between poor and non-poor children" in the nation, the NAACP called the suit "an excuse to not meet the needs of Connecticut's children of color." National civil-rights leaders soon joined the chorus. Legendary attorney William Taylor, chair of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a man who worked with Thurgood Marshall on the 1958 Little Rock Central High School brief to the Supreme Court, dismissed Blumenthal as an opponent of civil rights. One legal observer in Connecticut called the action a "special fiasco," while the Hartford Courant and The Washington Post published editorials denouncing the suit.
Blumenthal's miscalculation wasn't an isolated incident. Democrats have been stumbling on education policy for years, fracturing the progressive coalition, tainting the party brand, creating undeserved political opportunities for Republicans, and, worst of all, standing in the way of school reforms that primarily benefit low-income and minority children. Until Democrats reclaim education reform as a progressive cause, the embarrassments are sure to continue.
AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION does a much better job than many of its conservative critics claim. The idea that present-day schools represent a huge decline from previous decades is a myth; overall student achievement has improved and is improving still. At the same time, public schools are plagued by a number of major shortcomings, most rooted in the underlying structure and history of the system, which has always been unusually local in character, funding, and governance.
Local control means that poor students receive far fewer resources than their wealthy peers and that every district makes its own decisions about what students need to learn. Because schools are government-supported and free to attend, they generally have little competition or external accountability. Historically, this has led schools in environments lacking strong economic, social, and political institutions (the District of Columbia's public schools are an infamous example) to collapse into total dysfunction. Well-off students generally do okay in this system, because their schools have more resources and whatever they don't get from their teachers is made up for at home. Low-income and minority students, by contrast--the children whom Democrats should be ideologically and politically most interested in serving--tend to fare far worse. In many distressed communities, drop-out and illiteracy rates are sky-high.
There is nothing inherently conservative about observing these persistent problems or advocating the obvious …