After handily defeating his Republican rival for the governorship of red-hued Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear is having a “moment.” Prominent commentators from CNN’s David Axelrod to Politico’s Jonathan Martin think he has 2028 presidential potential: “attractive, young southern moderate, experienced governor, appeals to both R’s and D’s.”
I’m no political consultant or election seer, but to the extent that such comments and predictions are true, even that serious political analysts think they might be true, we education reformers should curb our enthusiasm. Perhaps Beshear is a promising center-left moderate on some issues, but not on ours.
Beshear’s major proposal for his second term promises increased teacher pay and universal pre-K. He has blocked charter school and school choice legislation. As for the culture wars, he vetoed a bill that would have limited instruction into sexual topics and access to transgender surgeries for minors. It’s a laundry list of the standard, uninspired progressive promises of the pre-reform era (now shared, alas, by the Biden team): no changes to the system, just more of it.
Comparisons to two former southern Democratic governors who reached national prominence reveal the changing nature of education reform over recent decades.
Bill Clinton rose to the presidency as an attractive, young, moderate southern governor of a red state, a Tony Blair–style centrist willing to pat backs and cut deals. But here the Beshear similarities end. Clinton was an ed reformer, especially in K–12 education. He was a long-time advocate for charter schools, for higher academic standards, and for test-driven accountability. All that started when he was governor of Arkansas, then went national when he co-hosted the 1989 Education Summit with then-president George H. W. Bush that convened forty-nine of the country’s fifty governors to establish ambitious education goals and a system of accountability to pressure schools towards them, setting the agenda for education reform for the next three decades.
The goals they set were naively ambitious, and the accountability system to come from it was flawed, sanctioning poor performing schools without bolstering their capacity to improve. Even so, these reforms sought meaningful changes to the system, not simplistic calls for more funding or higher pay. What’s more, despite their imperfections, the standards-based reforms that followed (with Goals 2000 and the Improving America’s Schools Act, both under Clinton, then NCLB, enacted with bipartisan support early in the term of Bush 41) brought notable improvements in academic scores, especially in elementary mathematics. Charter schools began to proliferate around the land, with federal support to jump-start more of them. Insufficient improvements, to be sure, but improvements regardless.
It’s impossible to picture Beshear doing any of those things. Policy-wise, he’s much more like another southern Democratic governor with national prospects: Jimmy Carter. Prior to the modern education reform movement, the theory of action in his time focused on inputs—more money, more regulation, more days in school, more unions, more credentialing for teachers, more revised textbooks, more, more, more. Beshear would have loved it—but he was only four when Carter yielded the Oval Office to Ronald Reagan.
Upon his reelection last week, Beshear’s first words, save for thanking his family, were a pledge for higher teacher pay, which leaves me questioning to whom he owes a debt. This resembles Carter’s election debt to the NEA that led him (against advice from most of his team) to push through the federal Department of Education.
Aside from “the science of reading”—a rare point of agreement—there’s functionally no conversation or overlap between Republican and Democratic education proposals. Today’s Republicans focus almost exclusively on school choice, the limitation of politicized instruction, and the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile, Democrats either obsess over the latest identity-themed fad or voice little more than insipid promises for money. Even perceived moderates like Josh Shapiro cave to union pressure when considering expanded charter or choice legislation.
A card-carrying conservative, I remain bullish (albeit cautiously) on education reform. The platform of Beshear’s rival, Daniel Cameron, could have bipartisan appeal: the inclusion of phonics in early elementary school, an expansion of afterschool and summer tutoring programs, increased pay of starting teachers, and stricter school discipline. Other Republican governors have reformed their civics and history curriculum, school choice is going gangbusters in just about every red state, and phonics has finally won the reading wars.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a pathway forward for many such reforms in Democratic states—or red states like Kentucky that are run by Democratic governors. Like it or not, durable education change, whether at the state or federal level, requires durable bipartisan support.
All of that said, the landscape of education reform has shifted since the last time a red state Democrat became a media darling. Union politics now cow Democrats away from reform, and conservatives have leaned again into values-laden debates that they formerly set aside to make common cause with liberals. Meanwhile, like forgotten toys, accountability and standards receive little attention from either party.
I’d take Beshear’s bland, oatmeal-like policies over the eliminate-all-consequences, discovery-education-obsessed variety of Gavin Newsom. But that’s hardly a soaring endorsement. If our only options then are conservative culture wars issues that don’t win elections (however much I agree with them in principle), a Carter-like educational malaise, or Kombucha-flavored California radicalism, we all lose.