If you wanted to get yourself crosswise with people who should be your friends, you hardly could do better than the Democratic Party of California as it voted recently to denounce Democrats for Education Reform. A party convention vote in California managed not only to take on Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has backed reform school board candidates, and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but also a parade of high-tech and other business leaders.
Said the head of the California Teachers Association, “These organizations are backed by moneyed interests, Republican operatives and out-of-state Wall Street billionaires dedicated to school privatization and trampling on teacher and worker rights.”
It's hardly news that Republicans nationally have been far more supportive of charter schools and other reforms than Democrats, tied as the latter are to the unions and the unions to the Democrats. In Washington, D.C., Democrats even were willing to go against local African-American groups backing school reform, though blacks are another key group in the Democratic coalition.
However, Democrats who favor charter schools or other education reforms are not a spirit conjured by the GOP. They are dissident Democratic donors who are tired of giving to a party that talks education reform, but doesn’t deliver.
Democrats for Education Reform, which has an active chapter in Washington state, therefore, constitutes an assertion that progress is more important than progressivism. It is a warning to Democrats against assuming there are no enemies on the left — certainly not if education is to be sacrificed to partisan solidarity.
In Washington state, a group called Stand for Children also backed pro-education reform candidates and stired up partisan Democratic antipathy. It is probably fair to say that Stand for Children, though non-partisan, is mostly made up of Democratic donors who put education first. They also are effective, with 80 percent of their endorsed candidates winning in 2012.
Among the candidates they supported in 2010 was Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, who now, of course, has become leader of the bipartisan tate Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Another reformer, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, has stayed with his party caucus, but also backs school reform — and bucks the union. The assumption is that the Washington Education Association is eager to retaliate against these and other Democrats — or Republicans, naturally — who dare to stand for reform. What’s new is that there is an education lobby backing reforms.
It’s surely now a political mistake to try to anathematize the office-holding school reform Democrats. Mostly they are backed by successful people who may support the Democratic Party but don't, in turn, rely on it. These donors therefore cannot be easily intimidated. Try to do so and the donors may retaliate more broadly against the Democratic Party.
Indeed, the odd thing that happens when you drive someone out of your party is that they don't just disappear. They may stumble around briefly. A few may fall back in line. But most eventually wind up joining the opposition. In this case, denouncing them as Republicans may make them consider becoming Republicans.
There are other good and related reasons they might do so, after all. Business leaders — including liberal ones — are probably more likely than the average person to study the news accounts of looming municipal bankruptcies around the country and of initiative crushing taxes in such states as Illinois and California. They see that costs imposed by government employee union leaders are hampering progress in many fields. They are drying up funds for purposes that most Democratic voters favor; most notably, education, but also the environment and parks, transportation, economic development, city planning and health research.
In this atmosphere, if Democratic operatives keep abusing groups like Democrats for Education Reform, they can expect a backlash from a section of another key part of the current Democratic coalition: big donors.
Republicans, naturally, will see that as an opportunity.