Does either political party know how to make public education better?

There are some policy issues, like guns and abortion, where each political party has very different goals.

There are other policy issues, like education, where both parties have roughly the same goals.

This should make policy making easier. To the extent something is working in public education, both parties should be willing to adopt it.

This is of course doesn’t always hold true, but education reform has had more bipartisan support than many other policy areas.


The biggest problem in making public education better for students living in poverty is that very little has worked at scale. It really is a problem of practice as much as politics.

A recent report by the Brightbeam Network shines a troubling spotlight on this fact. Brightbeam hired researchers to look at achievement gaps in the most progressive and most conservative cities in the nation.

See below for city lists. I’m sure you can guess which are progressive and which are conservative.

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The report finds that the progressive cities have larger achievement gaps between white and minority students than conservative cities.

The researchers make a good case for their findings, though it’s plausible to tell other stories outside of school effectiveness about why this might be the case. I emailed the researchers about a few of these, such as different states having different proficiency cut scores, and they said they would explore and get back; though they were confident there results would hold.

I am a member of the Democratic party, and I find it sad that there is no progressive policy proof point for how to make public education dramatically better.

San Francisco, for example, is one of the wealthiest and most progressive cities in the world. And, as the report shows, it’s public education system is a trainwreck. In San Francisco 70% of white students are proficient in math, compared to only 12% of black students reaching proficiency — a 58-point gap.

And keep in mind that Democrats control all branches of government in California. And that income taxes for the rich are amongst the highest in the country.

There are some progressive cities that have made solid gains for students living in poverty, such as Chicago and Washington D.C..

But these cities did not follow a progressive playbook, at least as defined by Warren / Sanders presidential campaigns. They made gains through a mix of left (expansion of pre-k, better teacher training) and centrist (grow charters, more accountability, close underperforming schools) policies.

Conservative cities, while they do better in the report, are also still home to large achievement gaps.

All this should make you very skeptical when either party says they know how to make public education much better at scale, especially for students of color.

Rhetorical wars are a poor substitute for actual proof. 

What we need is less grandstanding and more cities trying more things with the hope for more breakthroughs.

My hunch is that non-profit governance of public schools has the chance to be a major breakthrough. But this is still a hypothesis that needs to be tested at greater scale.

If the left has a better idea, they should try it in cities and states where they control the government.

If the right a better idea, they should try it in cities and states where they control the government.

We live in a polarized country where numerous states are under the control of one party. If there is a left or right solution out there, we’re well positioned to find it.

I hope we do.

But until we do, neither party can truthfully claim they are the education party.

The education party is a title with no home.

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