Why you should care
Because how we educate determines our future.
Shavar Jeffries is a civil-rights attorney and the president of Democrats for Education Reform.
With Senate Democrats (and a few Republicans) expressing opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Education Secretary, we have heard substantial discussion from Democrats and progressives about what they are against in education policy. But an oppositional strategy alone does not meet the challenges our young people face in a global labor market in which education and training are more important than ever. Progressives, instead, must pursue a positive agenda that ensures the competitive viability of our children and our nation as a whole.
In recent history, education policy has been set in the center, with a strong bipartisan consensus that wedded choice, innovation and accountability. This consensus recognized greater parental choice and brought external pressure on bureaucracies that had increasingly grown stale and incompetent in meeting student needs. But it also understood that choice and innovation are only as sound as their capacity to realize the gains in student achievement that justify public investments in the first place, so a parallel commitment to accountability has also been a hallmark of modern reform efforts. With the election of Trump, coupled with our country’s increasing ideological polarization, this consensus is under increasing stress, and some fear its collapse.
If we want public education to work for all kids, we need to build upon the bipartisan consensus that’s changed outcomes for the better during the Obama years.
On the hard right, a deep aversion to government and an overconfidence in markets has fueled support for unfettered school choice programs, often involving for-profit providers, with little oversight and less accountability, leading predictably to mediocre results. On the far left, we see an uncompromising, knee-jerk embrace of public-school bureaucracies that in many cities have failed kids for decades and that too often reflect the political priorities of narrow special interests, including teachers’ unions, and not the educational needs of students. The way forward requires a rejection of both extremes.
If we want public education to work for all kids, we need to build upon the bipartisan consensus that’s changed outcomes for the better during the Obama years:
Put families and communities first: Let’s replicate strategies that we know work for kids, especially those most underserved. Expanding parent choice through public charter schools has proven game-changing in states like Massachusetts and New Jersey, where students are obtaining several months of additional learning per academic year, but has been less promising in states with overly lenient accountability. Solid accountability is a necessary ingredient of effective public-choice programs, and federal and state policy should seek to expand what has been proven to work for kids.
Build and organize, together: When I was 10, my mother was murdered, and I never knew my dad. It was only because my grandmother demanded a better path for me that I got a quality public education. I’m proof it can be done, but not every child has someone to forcefully advocate for their future. We don’t have to accept a subpar school for children because they don’t live in the right neighborhood. As progressive reformers, we need to address the needs of the whole child. Education is paramount, and we can never let public authorities off the hook to ensure all schools work well for kids. But we’re fooling ourselves to think that civil rights, health care, housing, transportation and safety don’t matter too.
Be competitive: We can’t build a skilled workforce with unskilled workers. Our kids can’t compete when they’re losing ground to their international peers in an environment where jobs can go anywhere. Let’s keep the pressure on local and national lawmakers to provide real educational opportunity for all students — from early childhood through postsecondary education — so we can ensure they get both a great education and a step on the ladder to the middle class. Let’s also bolster teacher preparation, pay teachers what they’re worth, push for globally aligned high standards and strike the right balance in classrooms on assessments.
Soul search: Progressive reformers need to recognize that the unintended consequences of policies we’ve supported have ostracized some of our most critical partners. Too many families are frustrated by what they view as overtesting; teachers and principals too often feel drained and unappreciated by accountability measures they feel hinder their creativity and autonomy. While these concerns cannot cause us to abandon commitments to reasonable assessment and accountability, we must do a better job of communicating the stakes and the solutions. In the end, it’s not enough to win the policy but lose the narrative.
There is still too much we don’t know about how Donald Trump’s education agenda will trickle down to the classroom. Regardless of what his agenda will be, progressives need to proactively pursue an agenda that expands opportunities for kids. It’s time for progressives to identify what unites us, not divides us, on the issue of education so we can work toward common goals of great public schools, traditional and charter, and stable, safe, strong communities for every child.