LOS ANGELES — It’s rare that Democrats are cast as puppets of the Trump administration. But on the issue of education, many Democrats who have long supported school choice are newly on the defensive within their party, forced to distance themselves from President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
The unusual dynamic started soon after Trump’s inauguration, when a teachers union in Los Angeles sent voters mail depicting two charter-school-friendly school board contenders, both Democrats, as “the candidates who will implement the Trump/DeVos education agenda in LA.”
The message was repeated in New York, where the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group partially funded by teachers unions, likened Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education policies to Trump’s. The group urged online audiences to “stop Cuomo from doing Betsy DeVos’s dirty work.” In New Jersey, Sen. Cory Booker opposed DeVos’ appointment but came in for criticism for working with DeVos on school choice initiatives when he was mayor of Newark.
Though Democrats across the country widely repudiated DeVos, publicity surrounding her controversial appointment has allowed a new line of attack on members of the party who, while resisting school vouchers and certain teacher performance measures, have embraced charter school expansion and other education policies opposed by unions and traditional public school advocates.
Labor-backed Democrats are seizing on the DeVos issue as an opportunity ahead of the 2018 primary elections. In the race for California governor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom invoked DeVos’ appointment last month, telling a crowd in Hollister, California, that education would be the “wedge issue” in the 2018 campaign.
“The opportunity to brand a reformer as a Trump/DeVos Republican is a real risk for a Democrat,” said Mattis Goldman, a political consultant advising charter school ally Marshall Tuck in his campaign for California state superintendent of public instruction. “It’s important for candidates who disagree with that to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Tuck opposed DeVos’ appointment. But Goldman noted that “the winds of the situation are a little bit perilous for [reform] Democrats these days because you don’t want to be seen as having anything to do with Trump or Betsy DeVos.”
Had Hillary Clinton won the presidential election, candidates such as former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a charter school supporter, and Tuck would have been positioned as the Democrats pushing back against labor and establishment norms on education. Four years ago, Tuck supported a nationally watched lawsuit challenging California’s teacher tenure and job protection laws.
But with Trump and DeVos ascendant, defenders of traditional public education policies have a foil in Washington to bludgeon their reform opponents.
“DeVos and Trump have been explicit about a message of privatizing education and defunding public education in a way that I think reflects us saying, ‘We need to push back on that. We need to protect and strengthen education,’” said Tony Thurmond, a California state assemblyman running against Tuck for the open schools chief post next year. “I’m being really intentional about speaking out against those things.”
While education in recent years has rarely risen to the top of voters’ minds in statewide elections, the effort to yoke reform Democrats to DeVos could prove effective, especially in heavily Democratic states.
“What polling we’ve seen is that Betsy DeVos is very unpopular and, of course, Donald Trump could not be more unpopular with the Democratic base, so it makes plenty of sense,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C. “So I think that’s why you’ve seen many reformers on the left running away as fast as they can from Trump and DeVos.”
Reform efforts drew widespread attention in California during Tuck’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat Tom Torlakson in 2014, a race that drew more than $20 million in spending. Despite the influence of labor in state elections, some components of the school choice agenda already have a strong foothold in the nation’s most populous state, and Gov. Jerry Brown, who started two charter schools while mayor of Oakland, has maintained support both in the charter school movement and teachers’ union halls.
Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association, said that 10 years ago in California, few politicians would engage with charter school advocates “aside from a few Republicans.”
“What’s happened over time is that we have seen the Legislature has changed very significantly, and we’ve really seen that among Democrats, we have just many more folks that are supportive of charter schools,” he said. "Do these national winds, do they affect things here? Absolutely, absolutely. But it’s not like we’re just going to be blown across the map.”
Still, Wallace suspected charter school opponents would view DeVos’ appointment as a political opportunity to cut into charter schools’ gains.
“Yeah, that’s going to happen, and we have to be aware of that,” he said.
Newsom, in a thinly veiled criticism of rival Villaraigosa, said that “I believe in public education and will fight like mad for our public schools,” according to the news site BenitoLink. “This is not the case of every Democrat running for governor.”
Villaraigosa infuriated teachers when, as mayor of Los Angeles, he tried to increase his office’s control over local schools.
Villaraigosa, whose gubernatorial campaign stands to benefit from potential outside spending by wealthy school-reform advocates, told POLITICO that DeVos’ policies are “misguided” and undermine education. But the one-time chairman of the Democratic National Convention said that “I don’t talk about reform as much as I talk about education equity.”
Of DeVos, he added, “I don’t think she boxes me in. I’m unabashedly a progressive.”
But in Los Angeles, in a school board race where paid advertisements have been flying for months, Nick Melvoin, one of the reform candidates opposed by teachers, acknowledged the political problem presented by DeVos. Following the primary election, he told the news site LA School Report that he would have to persuade voters in the runoff that he is not a “Trump guy.”
“The union’s attacks, I think were effective, they were misleading,” Melvoin told the site. “It doesn’t take people a lot of time at doors to realize how crazy it is, but they’ve hit it so many times and there’s such a discomfort and heightened awareness about Trump, for good reason, that it’s been effective.”