11/13/2012 01:45 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Will Conservative 'Reformers' Now Turn on Their Liberal Allies?

Less than a week before the 2012 election, the conservative Fordham Institute praised its allies who came basically from the Left. Chester Finn and Mike Petrilli wrote, "What groups like Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and StudentsFirst are doing to challenge the hegemony of the unions is appropriate, important, and good for the country." Similarly, conservative "reformers" might criticize President Obama for running roughshod over local governments and for abandoning his attacks on teachers, but they saw the president as an ally in regard to education.

Now that the president was reelected, with unions playing a vital role as team players, and with the defeats of the most extreme "reformers" in Indiana, Idaho, South Dakota, and elsewhere, the tone of Fordham's conservatives is different. This is a change that Rick Hess had previewed when he attacked progressive reformers for not supporting Republican Governor Scott Walker's campaign against collective bargaining. He had compared Walker's so-called victory with Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel's defeat in the Chicago teachers' strike. Hess wrote:

Conservative school reformers should not count too heavily on progressive allies. Mitt Romney and other Republicans were quick to back Emanuel, but the Democrats' delicate alliance with teachers' unions makes it hard for them not to score points with a politically important constituency when they see Republicans pushing aggressively. Walker got kneecapped or strategically ignored by progressive reformers in his time of need, with even typically fearless Democratic reformers such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee keeping a careful silence. Republican governors and reformers elsewhere can expect similar treatment when they take on the unions.

Post-election, Hess analyzed "the split between Republicans and progressive education reformers." He complained that progressives fared better at the polls. They won when they teamed with conservatives on charter schools and, also, when they worked with unions to increase school spending. Without their liberal allies, conservatives lost when attacking unions and mandating virtual schooling. "We'll just see what that means going forward," Hess concluded ominously.

Like other reformers, Hess was apoplectic about the defeat of Indiana Republican Tony Bennett who pushed value-added teacher evaluations, vouchers, and Common Core. Unlike the other crest-fallen conservatives, he blamed the Obama administration, which "has done much to make the (Common) Core toxic on the right. And we're only just beginning to see the consequences."

I have often speculated why the Fordham Institute's Petrilli and Hess joined the "reform" camp in our nation's educational civil war. Their tough-mindedness seemed to be the opposite of liberals such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who cling to a faith-based belief that we can just fire our way to school improvement. I also could understand why they might feel personal loyalty towards individuals such as Bennett. But there seemed to be no rational way of reconciling the pragmatism of the co-authors of "Pyrrhic Victories" with Bennett's extreme overreach. Hess and Petrilli worried about overpromising by reformers, who were "touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures." Surely they saw the internal contradictions inherent in Bennett's use of primitive metrics to fire teachers, which thus encouraged rote instruction, with the rapid push for Common Core which requires the opposite.

When Bennett's rush to reform ultimately failed (for the same reasons why Klein and Rhee were defeated), I wondered, would Fordham's analysts be open to reality-based solutions promoted by educators and unions? After all, Petrilli had recently compared reformers to a python which had swallowed a deer and which needs to take a breather. Moreover, Fordham's Andy Smarick had been writing reflective pieces on the problems with hurried top down mandates. But, Smarick now adopts the same militaristic vocabulary as Hess, concluding:

The reform community has enjoyed many wins in the last several years, but I've been increasingly worried about the inevitable counter-offensive from the establishment, the striking back of the empire. The result of the Indiana election concerns me because it shows not only that reformers can be vulnerable to sustained bombardment from the left, but also that we need to be concerned about our right flank. A year ago, I never would have thought that possible.

So, watching the Right lash out, I see that I was naïve. There must be non-school, non-policy reasons for their attacks on the teachers. Since charter schools could deliver any of the potential benefits that could come from vouchers, I should have asked, what would be the educational value of alienating us by embracing the most radical type of choice? I could understand why conservatives, who come from a tradition of respecting local control, would join with liberal "reformers" in promoting charters as a means of using competition to improve unwieldy public school systems. But, why would they (and their progressive allies) not be equally leery of massive charter management organizations? I could understand conservatives seeking to use online education to cut education costs or, when appropriate, to improve instruction. But, why endorse Idaho's grandiose top-down mandates for virtual instruction?

Post-election, I thus read the latest manifesto of Fordham President Chester Finn with new eyes. He had long sought to "blow up" the "status quo." Now, I was struck by his explicit promise to use technology to reduce the number of flesh and blood educators, and to give complete control over to management. Finn endorsed teacher preparation "primarily via information and market forces." So, it is hard to read the Fordham president's position as anything but privatization and the rejection of the rights that public sector employees have negotiated.

I am not saying that all conservative reformers have abandoned the effort to improve schools and now seek to privatize them. But, what else they could be thinking? Hess now notes that Obama campaign promises were different than his first term actions. He worries that the second term of the Obama administration might return to its Democratic roots. If the president stops attacking teachers, liberal and neo-liberal school "reformers" will be tempted to follow suit.

Besides, any old-fashioned rock-ribbed conservative should be able to see that the modest improvements produced by the contemporary accountability movement have not been cost effective. So, are they tempted to destroy the public school system, without seeking a public option for replacing it?

Post-election, reformers on the Left must be asking the same questions. They could continue to work with their improbable allies to expand charters but, surely, they are equally dismayed that their generously-funded "reforms" have yielded meager results and they know that federal funding is about to dry up. Progressive "reformers" must be wondering how they ended up in bed with conservatives ranging from Jeb Bush to Rupert Murdoch. Why, they must ask, have schools have benefitted so little from policies that required them to give aid and comfort to advocates of vouchers, union-busting, and privatization? If they remain in the alliance known as "reform" and they succeed in blowing up public schools, without being able to replace them with a new form of public education, what will they have done?

So, I hope that Democrats who have supported the Left-Right test-driven "reform" coalition are reading the conservatives' analyses of their electoral defeats. Perhaps, progressives will not wait to be thrown overboard. Liberals, within and without the Obama administration, should be wondering if it is time to return home and work with their natural allies, teachers and unions, to make schools better and to keep them public.