Democratic education reformers, like many parents throughout the country, passionately believe that our public education system is struggling and needs to get better. But the DeVos appointment has left some of us in a state of confusion.
Some in the Democratic Party, with strong ties to the teachers unions, have outwardly blamed reform-minded Democrats for “helping pave the road for the DeVos nomination.” In addition, those who have advocated against a potentially extreme DeVos agenda believe the only way to fight her is through a traditionalist education agenda, based on the policies of special interests.
While many of us in the Democratic reform space share concerns regarding the DeVos appointment, such extreme tactics do not represent the will of parents. Up until recent years, working across the aisle to find common ground and bring compromise and develop needed results was once considered a patriotic endeavor. And it is clear that blindly following decades-old policy advocated by the teachers unions will certainly not address the current needs of our public school system.
Lost in this debate is the new opportunity provided to the Democratic party—to build on the Obama legacy and create a united, modern, “third-way” when it comes to the Democrat’s values on education.
We Have to Support Public Education Not Just Talk About It
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, after a string of failed elections, Democratic leaders such as President Bill Clinton, Senator Evan Bayh and Governor Tom Vilsack and organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council, the New Democratic Network, and the Blue Dog helped successfully carve out a “third way” to promote new ideas within the party. Their approach should serve as a blueprint to develop a united dissenting education policy for Democrats in the DeVos era.
Embracing the teachers unions’ platform is simply no longer sustainable for the Democratic Party and does not represent families who attend public school. Nor have these outdated policies provided opportunity for our children, especially in urban areas where the school-to-prison pipeline thrives and in our suburbs, which has failed to address a clear achievement gap.
However, on the other side, the DeVos’ mandate, which based on her words and history, seems to be focused on diminishing our public school system and is certainly not the answer either.
The Democratic party’s expectations, when it comes to public education, must be stronger and evolve to address the needs of the 21st century. We need to show parents that supporting public education means more than talk and throwing money at our school districts.
Accountability Is Not a Dirty Word
For all Democrats, “accountability,” must no longer be viewed as a dirty word, nor should it be unfairly demonized. Rather it should equate to its true purpose, greater investment in teacher development and providing parents with consistent and accurate information regarding their child’s progress.
Democrats need to advocate for investment in technology in our public classroom, not fight against it. We need to stop states that want to retreat from high standards. We need to challenge ourselves to create greater diversity in our teaching corps and educational leadership to better reflect the fact that more than half of the student population is now people of color. And, as Democrats, we must fight to make sure public schools are adequately and equitably funded.
A united “third-way” philosophy on education, which advocates for these principles, fights against any potential DeVos policies that diminish our public schools, and also challenges the special interest’s orthodoxies will show parents, who struggle every day with our public school system, that education does not need to be fought at the extremes.
Democrats must fight DeVos if she chooses to tear down our public schools. But that does not mean we cannot join her in demanding high-quality teachers in every classroom.
Getting Back the Parents We Lost
If we can embrace these basic ideas as a party, we will gain back some of the parents we lost in the last election and credibly make education an issue that distinguishes our party from Trump.
Most of all, by embracing a sensible “third-way” education platform, Democrats will better align with its most loyal base, the urban voter, who is already demanding reform in our school system. Today, 53 percent of Flint families, 32 percent of Philadelphia families, 92 percent of New Orleans families and 40 percent of Newark families have chosen reform-minded public charter schools.
As Democrats, we can continue promoting a status quo that has done very little for our kids and that supports special interest over the will of the parent. Or we can use this moment to create a stronger vision for the party, a “third way” for America’s education system focused on finding common ground and getting results.