I am a left-of-center Democrat who’s been an education reformer for 34 years and have always considered myself progressive, so I was surprised when the Ledger, a newspaper in central Florida, recently asserted that education reformers in Florida are conservative:
“Conservative education reformers are back in the state Capitol this year with an array of proposals that would strengthen alternatives to Florida’s traditional public schools, from more private school vouchers to expanded virtual education programs. But the bills promoting charter schools are generating the most resistance from public school districts.”
Now I’m not naive to the partisan politics that shape many of these debates and, given the large Republican majorities in the Florida Capitol it is hardly surprising they would be driving the agenda. But let’s pause for a moment on the term “conservative education reformers.”
I’ve always assumed traditionalists protecting the status quo were conservatives, while those advocating improvements were progressives. Had this Ledger writer shared my assumptions, he would have written, “Progressive education reformers are back in the state Capitol…”, and the next sentence would have read, “But the bills promoting charter schools are generating the most resistance from conservative public school districts.”
Even if the writer in this case is using the terms conservative and progressive as synonyms for Republican and Democrat, he still has some explaining to do. Clearly, not all charter school supporters are Republicans. President Obama is a charter school advocate, as was President Clinton, and these men are both prominent Democrats. In Florida, the original charter school bill was signed into law by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, also a Democrat.
Given how rapidly the political landscape surrounding education reform is shifting, trying to label reformers as conservative or progressive seems counterproductive. The most successful public education reformers are values-driven pragmatists who effectively balance progressive and conservative solutions. So are education reforms conservative or progressive? They’re both.