When Barack Obama was first assembling his White House Cabinet in late 2008, one of his top candidates for education secretary was Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University professor leading his education transition team. Her selection would have been a rebuke to the leading school reformers of the time -- charter school supporters who fought the teachers unions to advance policies like merit pay based on students' test scores.
Darling-Hammond opposed merit pay, had a union-friendly focus on education funding, and was seen by charter school advocates as a threat to their movement. The pro-charter political action committee Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) worked to prevent Obama from picking her, deploying what The Nation described as “a highly coordinated media campaign.”
In the end, the president-elect chose DFER’s preferred candidate -- Arne Duncan, the leader of Chicago's public school system. But a decade later, the Democratic Party is increasingly turning against DFER-style reforms like charter schools and merit pay, and Darling-Hammond is getting another opportunity to directly shape education policy -- in the nation’s most populous state.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, nominated Darling-Hammond last month to lead the State Board of Education. Education experts say her tenure will be closely scrutinized in policy circles and could end up influencing school systems across the country.
Her fellow board members are expected to vote her in as president this week. The state Senate will then have a year to confirm her appointment, which so far hasn’t produced any organized opposition.
“She's an ingenious choice by Gov. Newsom, largely because Professor Darling-Hammond has strong ties with the labor and the social justice communities,” says Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “This contrasts the Obama era, and even [former Gov.] Jerry Brown's reign, when one wing of Democrats was pitted against the other. Professor Darling-Hammond has the robust capacity to unite educators and activists intent on building equitable schools.”
Fuller says Newsom’s selection suggests he’s “not warming to charter schools,” which are publicly funded but privately run, unless they have the same regulations as traditional public schools. Indeed, he already signed a new law that will require charter schools to follow the same transparency guidelines as public schools. Like much of the the Democratic Party, Newsom's education approach has shifted to become less favorable toward charters, which he supported when he was mayor of San Francisco.
Charters are intended to be innovative and free from bureaucratic red tape, but they divert taxpayer dollars from traditional schools, and many fail to outperform them.
Charter school opponents have mixed feelings about Darling-Hammond’s appointment.
“Until recently, I felt sure that Linda understood the damage charters and privatization do to public schools,” says Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian who served as U.S. assistant secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush and is a leading critic of the school choice movement. “But she and her team recently published a report on choice accepting charters as part of the ‘tapestry’ of American schooling. ... I’m hoping she will insist on accountability for charters and speak for the 90 percent [of students] in public schools.”
Carol Burris, executive director of the anti-charter Network for Public Education, believes Darling-Hammond will at least crack down on for-profit charters, even if she leaves the nonprofits alone.
“We are hoping that the best of Linda Darling-Hammond prevails,” she says.
During his State of the State address, Newsom described "charter school growth" as one of California's education “stressors,” along with “understaffed schools, overcrowded classrooms, pension pressures [and] the achievement gap.” He noted that California ranks toward the bottom in per-pupil funding and said he wants to invest more state dollars in education.
Darling-Hammond declined Governing’s request for comment but told EdSource that she would largely seek continuity with the policies of former Gov. Jerry Brown and former State Board of Education President Michael Kirst.
Brown -- a founder of two charter schools -- vetoed the charter transparency legislation that Newsom is now pushing and was generally hesitant to regulate charters. He did, however, sign a bill last year meant to ban for-profit charters. But school choice critics like Burris question its effectiveness.
"No matter how well intended, [the new law] will not shut down California’s for-profit schools anytime soon. In some ways, it may make matters worse by obscuring the reality of what many charter schools are ... And whether they are for-profit or nonprofit, there will still be ample opportunity in the charter sector for profiteers to take advantage of the public treasure and trust," Burris wrote in The Washington Post.
Under Brown and Kirst's control, the state also changed funding formulas to target low-income and high-needs students, created a new state accountability system, and expanded efforts to address teacher shortages, especially for math, science and special education.
Brown and Kirst “laid a strong foundation for a new approach to 21st-century learning,” Darling-Hammond told EdSource. She hopes to be “continuing that very strong trajectory” while “taking it to the next level.”
Her nomination comes as education politics in the Democratic party are moving to the left. One of the ideas gaining traction is a moratorium on charters. But Rick Hess, one of the nation’s most prominent education scholars, who directs education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, doubts Darling-Hammond would adopt that policy. He says she's not the kind of "school-choice-hating, social-issue-crusading firebrand" he might have expected from Newsom.
“Linda looks positively Blue Dog compared to some of that stuff,” Hess says. “My sense is she's sympathetic to all of that, but .... I think for political and practical reasons, she would counsel against going nearly [that] far."
Still, Hess believes Darling-Hammond's influence will extend outside California as Democrats chart a new course on education policy in 2020 and beyond.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this stated that California Gov. Gavin Newsom was fast-tracking legislation to require charter schools to follow the same transparency guidelines as public schools. He had already signed it in early March.