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The last time she ran for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton did not have to take a position on the Common Core, Race to the Top or teacher evaluations in tenure decisions.
She won the endorsement of one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions in 2007 after deploring the use of standardized tests and the underfunding of the No Child Left Behind law by President George W. Bush’s administration.
Now, as she prepares for a likely second run at the White House, Clinton — who largely avoided domestic policy when she was secretary of state — is re-entering the fray like a Rip Van Winkle for whom the terrain on education standards has shifted markedly, with deep new fissures in the Democratic Party.
Already, she is being pulled in opposite directions on education. The pressure is from not only the teachers who supported her once and are widely expected to back her again, but also from a group of wealthy and influential Democratic financiers who staunchly support many of the same policies — charter schools and changes to teacher tenure and testing — that the teachers’ unions have resisted throughout President Barack Obama’s two terms in office.
And the financiers say they want Clinton to declare herself.
“This is an issue that’s important to a lot of Democratic donors,” said John Petry, a hedge fund manager who was a founder of the Harlem Success Academy, a New York charter school. “Donors want to hear where she stands.”
The growing pressure on education points out a deeper problem that Clinton will have to contend with repeatedly, at least until the Iowa caucuses: On a number of divisive domestic issues that flared up during the Obama administration — trade pacts, regulation of Wall Street, tax policy — she will face dueling demands from centrists and the liberal base of the Democratic Party.
With no strong primary opponent to force her into the open, Clinton’s allies believe that she has plenty of time to maneuver before taking sides. But advocates will be using what leverage they possess to draw her out sooner.
Petry said that there were many other political contests where wealthy Democrats who favor sweeping changes to education — including a more businesslike approach, and tying teacher tenure to performance as measured by student scores — could focus their resources next year instead, including congressional, state and local races.
Some progressives already view Clinton as overly cozy with Wall Street. And should she align herself with the elite donors who favor an education overhaul, many of them heavyweights in the investment world, it could inflame the liberal Democratic base.
The outcome is particularly important for advocates of an overhaul, whose movement has faced growing opposition the past few years. Political crosswinds have whipped up from both the right and the left, particularly over the Common Core education standards that more than 40 states have put in place, but also over Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s program to reward school districts that improve, using measurements that union leaders often find controversial. Reform proponents include donors, but also a cross section of parents and business advocates.
Jeb Bush, a likely Republican presidential candidate, has been a staunch supporter of the Common Core, but other contenders in his party have railed against it.
And in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democratic proponent of education overhaul, is battling to survive an April 7 runoff in his bid for a second term. Emanuel closed dozens of underperforming schools, many of them in predominantly black neighborhoods, and had an angry run-in with a leader of the city teachers’ union.
Not surprisingly, supporters of an education overhaul speak apprehensively about Clinton’s long-standing friendship with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed her in 2007.
“I hope she sees this as a winning political issue,” said Whitney Tilson, manager of Kase Capital and a board member of Democrats for Education Reform, a leading left-of-center advocacy group on the subject.
But he said he was concerned: “She has had more long-standing ties to the teachers’ union, certainly, than Obama ever had. She’s thrown some bones to both sides and I think is sort of trying to triangulate on this.”
In another sign of that anxiety, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, Joe Williams, recently circulated a memo to its board members highlighting the “strong ally” the group has had in the White House during the past six years and describing the “stiff pushback” the group and its allies are now facing.
Presumably in an attempt to set the terms for a policy discussion with Clinton and other candidates, the memo said the group had commissioned polling showing that “voters support our policies, and if candidates want to meet voters where they are, they should, too,” according to a copy obtained from a recipient.
Williams concluded, “Democratic candidates who support education reform are representative of where the American people are, and those who want to roll back progress risk becoming outliers.”
Williams noted that the polling was conducted by Benenson Strategy Group, founded by Joel Benenson, whom Clinton had recently retained as chief strategist. An official at the firm said research had been done before it was hired by Clinton and was not conducted by Benenson himself.
Still, Benenson, who was Obama’s pollster, would be familiar with how the issue played out in the 2012 campaign, when Mitt Romney accused Obama of being too close to teachers’ unions, and Obama’s advisers saw his support for changes to education as an asset against Romney, a businessman.
In fact, Obama’s ties with teachers’ unions have grown increasingly toxic. Union leaders complained that his administration did not listen to them, and anger over the use of test scores to gauge success boiled over last year when the head of the largest union, the National Education Association, called on Education Secretary Arne Duncan to resign.
Clinton intends to listen to both sides, according to her advisers.
“I think it will be different than the Obama administration in the sense that both the teachers’ union and the reformers will really feel like they have her ear in a way they haven’t,” said Ann O’Leary, a onetime aide to Clinton in the Senate and now a senior vice president at Next Generation, a group involved with the Clinton Foundation on an education initiative.
“She believes we need to have some kind of ways that we can measure student progress,” O’Leary said. But she said Clinton was “also sympathetic that the test regime has become very burdensome in driving the education system in ways that many people think is problematic.”
Clinton will at least not have to establish credibility on the subject.
Her involvement with efforts to overhaul education dates back at least to the early 1980s, when her husband named her co-chairwoman of an Arkansas committee that called for a teacher-competency test along with reducing class sizes and raising the dropout age. As a senator, she voted for No Child Left Behind in 2001, but later attacked the law, saying it was failing children.
Her association with Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers began when Weingarten was a local union leader in New York and Clinton was the state’s junior senator. Yet her incoming campaign chairman, John D. Podesta, has been a charter school supporter.
In an interview, Weingarten suggested that those she termed “the so-called education reformers” were most worried that the agenda they have pushed for with the Obama administration, and in places like Chicago, “does not work.”
But she rejected the idea that Clinton would set policy based on anything other than “her experience and the evidence.”
“She has been versed in these issues for a long time, and will give everyone a fair hearing and a fair shot, but she will look at it through the lens of what’s good for kids. Period,” Weingarten said. “Anybody who thinks otherwise just doesn’t know her.”