LESS THAN TWO weeks before they will anoint Hillary Clinton as the party’s new standard-bearer, Democrats are putting the finishing touches on a party platform that signals a big shift on education policy. That is cause for either celebration or alarm, depending on which camp within the party you listen to.

The platform changes come on the heels of a speech last week by Clinton to the annual convention of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, in which she also put some daylight between her views and the reform policies of the Obama administration, which has had a tense relationship with teachers unions.

The amendments approved last weekend at the final platform committee meetings in Orlando, Florida, put the party on record opposing “high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners as failing, the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or close schools, and the the use of students test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.” The amendments also included support for parents who “opt out” of having their children take state standardized tests.The platform would maintain the party’s support for charter schools, but say that they “should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools.”

Hillary Clinton in Nashua, New Hampshire. Creative Commons/Flickr photo by Aaron Webb
“I’m with you,” Clinton told the annual convention of the National Education Association.

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, hailed the changes in a statement that called them “landmark education amendments” that represent a “refreshing sea change” in the party’s approach to education policy, a not too subtle jab at the Obama administration and its heavy push for testing and strong accountability for teacher performance.

To Democrats for Education Reform, which has supported Obama’s education agenda, the platform changes mark a huge step backwards. The changes would “roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” the group’s president, Shavar Jeffries, said in a statement.

The starkly contrasting reactions reflect a divide on education policy that has roiled the Democratic Party. The tension pits those who argue that high-stakes testing, charter schools, and other reforms are in keeping with the party’s civil rights legacy of advocacy for poor and minority children against teachers unions and their allies who say such policies are unduly punitive toward students and teachers, weaken organized labor, and destabilize school districts serving low-income families.

In her speech last week to the NEA convention in Washington, Clinton called for an end to the “education wars” that have caused so much friction in recent years and for embrace of an approach to education policy that puts teachers in the middle of the conversation — something they say has not been the case during the Obama years.

“I want to say right from the outset that I’m with you,” Clinton told the convention in what seemed a not coincidental echo of the “I’m with her” tagline used by her campaign. If she is fortunate enough to be elected, Clinton said, “educators will have a partner in the White House and you’ll always have a seat at the table. I have this old fashioned idea that when we’re making decisions about education, we actually should listen to our educators.”

The only moment of discord came when Clinton spoke of the need to support all schools that are working well for students — whether traditional district schools or charter schools. The NEA delegates greeted that with a round of boos.

But there was no talk by Clinton of purging schools of ineffective teachers or using test scores as part of educator evaluations, as the Obama administration pushed through its $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant program. Instead, Clinton turned the focus from the impact of teachers to the role of poverty and the problems in the communities where poor children are being raised.

“So much of what happens inside your classrooms is determined by what happens outside your classrooms,” she told the teachers.

Clinton’s remarks were a welcome change from the Obama years, said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state NEA affiliate, who attended the convention. “I appreciated that she’s talking about educator voices and taking those seriously,” she said. “And she addressed poverty as a crucial issue for schools, and I appreciated that.”

But Clinton’s turn away from some pillars of the reform movement has set off alarms among reform-minded Democrats.

In an interview last fall, Clinton said most charters “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them,” offering up a chief criticism leveled by charter school opponents.

Meanwhile, while campaigning in Wyoming this spring for his wife, former president Bill Clinton said she “thinks the federal government requires too many tests for US schoolchildren.”

That drew a sharp rebuke from Jeffries, the Democrats for Education Reform president.

Jeffries, Shavar
Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform.

“Apparently, the Clintons have parted ways with the vast majority of fellow Democrats, as well as civil rights and business groups, on the importance of annually measuring student progress against state academic benchmarks,” Jeffries wrote in in April in U.S. News & World Report. Rolling back what he called the federal government’s “fairly minimal” testing requirements, Jeffries wrote, “would be to the detriment of our students, particularly poor and minority children, children of recent immigrants and students with disabilities.”

Peter Cunningham, a former aide to Obama education secretary Arne Duncan, slammed the platform changes in a piece this week, writing that it’s fine to oppose standardized tests that “unfairly label” students as failing. “No argument here,” he wrote, “but what about standardized tests that truthfully and fairly identify underperforming schools and struggling students? The platform is silent.”

Even the platform’s support for charters, he said, seemed less than sincere since it said they should never “replace or destabilize” traditional district schools. “That’s a pretty extreme condition, since we have a limited number of children in America and they may choose to attend charters instead of neighborhood schools,” Cunningham wrote.

Clinton — along with her husband — has long been a strong supporter of the standards and accountability movement as well as charter schools, but she is also close with Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president.

“I think there’s been some uncertainty thus far in the campaign about which Hillary Clinton would show up on education policy, and this speech eliminated much of that uncertainty,” said Marty West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who says Clinton is tacking toward the teachers’ views on reform issues.

Liam Kerr, the Massachusetts state director for Democrats for Education Reform, doesn’t see a break from the Obama and Duncan policies. “Going into that room and saying we need to do more of what’s working, including charter schools, that takes backbone,” Kerr said of Clinton’s NEA speech.

Even Duncan and his successor as education secretary, John King, have acknowledged that there has been an overemphasis on testing, sometimes to the exclusion of a broader, rich curriculum for all students. But that doesn’t mean the overall direction of the reform effort is wrong, said Kerr.

“We need to experiment in government and when something’s working we need to do more of it, and when it’s not we need to change it,” Kerr said. “I don’t think these actions constitute a retreat,” he said of Clinton’s speech.

Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Cambridge, had a similar reaction. “My main takeaway is that I think she’s trying to find a place for teachers’ voice to be prominent in education reform,” he said. “I didn’t hear a retreat from many of the principles of the Obama administration.”

Clinton has certainly sounded themes that are friendlier to teachers unions, and the new party platform amendments signal a clear shift away from the charter- and testing-friendly policies of the Obama era.

Whether any of that would mean mean huge changes in actual policy in a Clinton administration, however, is unclear.

“The question for me is how much does any of this matter given the constraints on a president’s ability to drive education policy, especially in the context of the Every Student Succeeds Act,” said West, who served as a senior education policy adviser to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate education committee, during the work leading to passage of the law replacing the No Child Left Behind Act.

The new law maintains annual testing of students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but it gives states a lot more leeway to fashion their own accountability systems to address chronic poor performance, and it removes any requirements to consider student test scores in teacher evaluations.

“Congress just had a lengthy debate over the federal role in testing and accountability,” said West. “That compromise was a very delicate one, where you had civil rights groups pushing for a much stronger role for accountability and testing, and unions pushing for the elimination of it. I don’t see how they’re going to reopen that.”