We were recently treated to the most in-depth conversations yet on the campaign trail regarding education policy, courtesy of a Republican candidate forum co-sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children.
The common theme of the day was the pre-eminence of local control and running away from any role for the federal government beyond doling out money. Simply put, when it comes to standards and accountability, GOP candidates believe that locals know best.
There’s a New Frenemy in Town
As I listened to the rhetoric, I couldn’t help but think that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) might be better off with one of the Republican candidates for their 2016 presidential endorsement.
Most of the hot-button topics on the union agenda—reducing class size, protecting seniority rights, increasing funding for schools and fighting against school choice—are issues dealt with at the state and district level. The unions know this and spend tens of millions of dollars to influence state and local policies for the benefit of their members.
To be sure, it’s not a perfect match. Rather than rail against Washington like the Republican candidates have done, most of the union rhetoric regarding national policy focuses instead on testing. When it comes to talking about local control, union leaders are careful to keep it focused on wrangling between state and local education leaders.
Yet it’s hard to miss the similarity between the rhetoric heard at the candidate forum and that of AFT president Randi Weingarten when talking about local school districts.
Education justice means local communities having the right to set priorities for local public schools. http://t.co/MgqhGfHpVH
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) August 13, 2015
I Promise, I’m Not Being a Hater
It’s not that I care whether unions and Republicans suddenly become best friends. It’s that there are real perils to prioritizing local control over ensuring that all schools and districts are actually educating all children.
Look no further than Pinellas County, Florida, where a recent story detailed the systematic neglect and denial of opportunity to poor students of color by the local board of education.
In East Ramapo, local leaders are going about it differently, but the results for students sound very much the same.
Or listen to NPR’s heartbreaking report on the four-year struggle in St. Louis, Missouri, to address the deep segregation that still plagues the community there, leaving students in the Normandy district stuck in failing schools.
These stories captured national attention, and they should. Unfortunately, they are not outliers.
These stories are at the heart of the debate over accountability—whether we should leave the future of millions of students up to local officials who have shown an unwillingness to ensure schools serve all children well without the threat of intervention by the federal government.
The future of kids in Pinellas County, Normandy, and East Ramapo is what was really at stake during the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization debate in Congress earlier this year. That’s when teachers unions abandoned their traditional Democratic and civil rights allies and helped defeat an amendment that would have significantly strengthened the accountability mechanisms in the bill by requiring states to identify and develop intervention plans for the lowest-performing schools.
ESEA. Common Core. The lowest 5 percent of schools. Testing. Boil it all down, and that’s what the 2016 presidential election is about when it comes to K-12 schools.
Unless there’s a change of tune, it sounds like the nominee of at least one of the major political parties and the leaders of the national teachers unions are singing the same song.
And that’s not music to my ears.