Anyone who has known me longer than five minutes knows that I am a pacifist, tree-hugging, worker-loving, Bernie Sanders Democrat. So what was I doing the morning after the election? Two things: joining my daughter’s second-grade classmates and parents as we welcomed their teacher back after her wedding, and working with a trainer. I saw Hillary Clinton’s speech from the changing room after a hard workout.
Yes, I’m saddened by the election results. But I’m not all that surprised. Nor am I that dismayed. For education, the truth is, who is in the White House doesn’t really matter all that much.
Federal education spending counts for less than 10 percent of spending on schools across the United States. Fundamentally, schools are controlled by local and state jurisdictions, a fact recently affirmed by the Every Student Succeeds Act.
As a lifelong active Catholic, I am familiar with an idea called the principle of subsidiarity. It means that the organization closest to an issue should be in charge of that issue. In education’s case, that means local districts and states should call the shots. That should ensure that local officials, who know local students, are making the best decisions they can for the children in their care. Much of the time, it works.
I’m No Stranger to America’s History of Education
However, as a student of U.S. history, I am also well aware that states have often failed to uphold principles of justice and equity when it comes to educating children. Children who are poor, or Black and Brown—children like my daughter and our neighbors’ children—have been historically neglected.
From Brown v. Board of Education through Title I funding to No Child Left Behind, the federal government has played a strong and important role in pushing states and districts to serve all their students responsibly and equitably.
Under President Obama, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has taken strong stands to end the school-to-prison pipeline and support the rights of women and transgender people.
It is possible, if not likely, all that may end under a President Trump. That worries me deeply. But for us, the battle has already shifted to the states. We’ll need to get smart about how states are choosing to measure school performance and watch for tricks that have been used to hide poor results—from lowering the bar for proficiency to hiding how groups of vulnerable children are doing.
And there are other ways forward. Trump has said he supports school choice. We’ll need to see how he plans to put muscle behind it, but if it means more opportunity to create excellent, break-the-mold charter schools, let’s find a way to work with it.
We Need to Stop Bickering and Focus on the Issues
Fellow Democrats, we need to take a page out of the Republicans’ playbook and serve on our local school boards—both to ensure strong schools and to build our political chops for future elections. Interestingly, in Chicago a group of charter school parents are calling for a change to state law so that they can serve on Local School Councils—the school-level boards that set budgets and hire principals.
Education reformers, maybe now would be a great time to stop bickering and focus on the real issues we face: a weak teacher-training system, unfairly funded schools (especially in my home state, Illinois) and rigid, outmoded ways of doing business in schools that leave teachers overwhelmed.
We need to focus on creating conditions where teachers can build strong relationships with students and can help them learn to high standards. Plenty of research tells us that good public schools–charter- or district-run–organize themselves so that every child has teachers who are warm and demanding of nothing but their best. As education reformers, our job is to promote policy that makes those classrooms happen more often, and keep everything else out of the way.
Now is a moment to strengthen our schools—and our democracy. For me, it’s not a time to cry. It’s a time to get stronger and smarter, and closer to schools, where the real work happens.