In Virginia Gubernatorial Primary, Democrats Get a Lesson: Being Progressive Means Supporting Public Schools

Normally the Democratic primary for governor of Virginia doesn’t garner much attention, but this year more than 536,000 people were motivated to participate. What made the race particularly interesting was that the future of public education in the state was front and center..

Standardized testing, school vouchers, and charter schools have been hot issues in Virginia in recent years. Virginia was an early adopter of test-based accountability, instituting comprehensive standardized testing even before the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed. Recently, however, politicians of both parties have recognized the need to cut back on the number of standardized tests. Vouchers and voucher-like initiatives such as tax credits have been consistently pushed by Virginia Republican legislators and opposed by Virginia Democrats.

As for charter schools, they are permitted in Virginia (there are nine of them) but they must be approved and then governed by local school boards. Most charter schools in Virginia are in areas that are Democratic strongholds, however, those communities want to open and operate them themselves not give them over to private charter chain operators. Meanwhile, most of the opposition to the current charter school laws in Virginia comes from state-level Republican leaders and legislators and from right-wing national organizations that favor privatization. Less conservative education reform organizations such as TFA who have also tried to make inroads in Virginia have done so, albeit not successfully, by allying with these more conservative groups and state Republican leaders.

This year’s Democratic primary was a contest between Ralph Northam, the current Lieutenant Governor and a longtime supporter of public schools, and Tom Perriello, who served as a member of Congress representing Virginia from 2008 to 2010. People from outside of the state who didn’t know any better tried to cast the race though a Hillary-versus-Bernie lens. But most people inside the state and those who follow Virginia politics knew that narrative didn’t apply.

Perriello campaigned as a populist, just like he did when he was running for Congress. Perriello had the support of most national Democrats, including John Podesta, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. Northam campaigned as a Virginia Democrat and had the support of state-level Democrats.

When it came to public education, Northam had a record of supporting public schools and public school advocates came out in force to support him. He had the endorsement from the VEA (Virginia Education Association), and widespread community support. In Virginia, teacher, administrator, and parent stakeholder groups form a strong and fairly unified coalition. Our public education institutional infrastructure in Virginia is also solid. We have county- and municipal-based school systems governed by school boards, the majority of which are elected.

Perriello had, well, relationships with the neo-liberal, market-based reformers that the Obama administration, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, favored and that have been known to ally themselves with the Virginia GOP on state-level education reform matters. Yes, these were Democrats, but ones who have largely turned their backs on public education.

Perriello co-sponsored charter school legislation while he was in Congress, and was named “Reformer of the Month” in 2010 by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER is an anti-union group founded by a group of hedge fund managers who favor school privatization, high stakes testing, de-professionalization of the teaching force, and shutting down struggling public schools. Supporters of public education who know something about educational politics and “reform” are not fans of the group.

This connection may have turned off a lot of Democratic primary voters who ended up voting against Perriello. Outfits like DFER have done a lot to undermine our trust in the Democratic Party. Those of us who believe in public education voted for Obama the first time with enthusiasm. The second time, we held our noses. He was a great President in many ways but he was awful on education.

Perhaps like so many Democrats, Perriello hasn’t spent much time getting to know the issue. I doubt he understood the damage the neo-liberal reform policies of the last decade have done to public schools or how anti-populist and anti-labor they were. His loss reflects a disconnect between public education defenders and otherwise-progressive politicians who have not yet gotten the memo that defending public schools is a key value for progressive voters.

Public education got so burned during the Obama administration that far from being an asset, Obama crew’s coming out for Perriello made public school supporters recoil. We haven’t spent the past several years working to preserve public education in Virginia only to have some Democrat who didn’t know any better waltz in with his out-of-state hedge fund manager buddies and undo it.

Not only did Northam win, but a strong network of and support for public schools in Virginia combined with wariness of market-based education reforms meant that both Democratic candidates labored to distance themselves from any perceived support for charter schools.

I hope this sends a message that people want their public schools preserved, even if they are in need of improvement, and that any “reforms” should be improvements that are democratically and locally driven, with a mind towards preserving public democratic institutions and the common good. If Northam is victorious in the general election, we will still need to make certain that he fulfills this vision and promise.

We can take nothing for granted—power concedes nothing without a demand, and if the people don’t demand preservation of our public schools, power may concede them to those who won’t.

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