Sunday, December 20, 2020

Educational Opportunity

In an unenlightening interview in September, comedian/talk show host Trevor Noah posed to Montana senator Jon Tester a question, beginning at approximately 2:30 of the video below, about the lack of support for Democrats in rural America. "Do you feel that Democrats," Noah asked, "have lost white, rural voters and how do you think they can begin winning them back?

Tester's answer was pretty much boilerplate Democratic language: "we need to listen, talk to them and listen to them."

In a much more revealing interview recently conducted by The New York Times, Senator Tester gave a more thorough explanation of the reasons Democrats faltered (as usual) in rural areas in the recent electoral cycle. They include:

 1) having a messenger such as Chuck Schumer, which "doesn't sell";

2) not making it clear- both for messaging and policy- that defunding the police is a bad idea;

3) not running emphatic- and more timely- advertisements denouncing rioting;

4) failing to emphasize two policy matters- what Democrats are "doing for infrastructure," especially broadband, and GOP efforts "to basically privatize public education."

Aside from policy implications, defunding the police makes for a terrible slogan, as Jim Clyburn and Barack Obama have noted. That is why Republicans ran advertisements trying to link their Democratic opponents, even when the latter opposed the approach, to "defund the police" and also why the left, including Democratic politicians, strain to explain that "defund the police" doesn't mean "abolish the police."

If words mean anything, it does, but that's strategically irrelevant. People respond to slogans and while "black lives matter" sounds good (and irrefutable), "defund the police" didn't hit the right note to the vast majority of voters.

That is also the reason that Tester's policy recommendations are tactically sound.  There is little downside to emphasizing infrastructure and broadband is particularly needed in rural areas. The American people love spending; taxes, not so much, but Republicans wouldn't counter Democrats' message with "but that will require more taxes" because it would backfire.

And then there is public education. It's impossible to know from Jonathan Martin's Times article whether Tester's support for public education includes charter schools, which- as recipients of public funding- are technically considered "public schools," but only technically.  Disturbingly, much of the Democratic political establishment- Barack Obama, (former Education secretary) Arne Duncan, (New Jersey Senator) Cory Booker, Rahm Emanuel, and so many others- are fond of charter schools. The financial industry is a big fan.

However, three weeks ago The New York Post reported

Biden has called for a ban on federal funding for charter schools that are operated by for-profit companies, which account for 12 percent of charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

He also pledged, as part of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, to “support measures to increase accountability for charter schools.”

“We will call for conditioning federal funding for new, expanded charter schools or for charter school renewals on a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students,” the task force’s final platform read.

With loopholes aplenty, that is insufficient. However, it is a start, and would be better than we got with the last Democratic presidency. Full-throated support for the traditional public school is an option which should play well both with many rural Americans and with urban/suburban progressives. It also offers an opportunity for a good slogan, such as "kids, not profits" but something much snappier. Something not equating children with baby goats would be particularly welcome.

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