When Rep. Joe Kennedy III gave the Democrats’ response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, he of course spoke to the same 320 million individuals that the president addressed. But from within the walls of Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Massachusetts, Kennedy might as well have been speaking to anyone and everyone who has ever stepped foot in the ring to fight for quality schools.
In fact, if you read between the lines, portions of Kennedy’s speech can actually be read through an education lens.
Kennedy said, “They’re turning American life into a zero-sum game where, for one to win, another must lose.”
His words were familiar. Education advocates—both pro- and anti-reform—have been playing rounds and rounds of the zero-sum game for years.
An Education-Based State of the Union Response
So put on your academic cap for a moment and listen carefully to the uncanny parallels between Kennedy’s actual speech and what easily could have been Kennedy describing the zero-sum thinking that threatens our ability to provide a high-quality education for every child in America.
They’re turning our kids’ education into a zero-sum game where, for one to win, another must lose. Where we can increase funding for the neighborhood schools if we block expansion of charters. Where we can extend support for reading and math if we gut resources for social-emotional learning. We can cut budgets for centrally-funded special education services today in order to raise financial support for low-income students tomorrow. Where the sanctuary cities in which many of our largest school districts operate receive federal funding only if we sacrifice dreamers. We are bombarded with one false choice after another. Charters or district schools? Support for English-language learners or special education students? Integrated or majority-minority schools?
As if the union teacher in Pittsburgh, a charter teacher in Tulsa, and an innovation school teacher in Colorado are bitter rivals rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged toward the success of only some of their students. As if the parent who lies awake wondering if her sixth-grade son or daughter can actually read at a sixth-grade level is any more or less legitimate than a parent whose heart is shattered by their school forcing their student with special needs into a new school. So here is the answer the ed reformers offer tonight. We choose both.
We fight. We fight for both, because the greatest, strongest, richest nation in the world should not have to leave any child behind. We choose—we choose a better education for all who call our country home. We choose access to a free public education where those who need more get more and where teachers, parents and students share responsibility for ensuring student success.
We choose an education system that offers family choice, whether you choose a traditional district school, public charter school or innovation school. We choose an accountability system transparent enough to give parents confidence that their students are learning and nimble enough to change as student knowledge grows and the competitiveness of our global economy evolves.
We choose ALL students. We choose the thousands of American communities whose roads to school aren’t paved with power or privilege but with an honest effort, with good faith and the resolve to build something better for our kids. That is our story.
This can be our education story if it’s what we truly desire.
But we must first be willing to acknowledge the false dichotomies that others present.
When we hear them, we must have the courage to push back, use the power of words to inspire and unite—not to denigrate and divide, and boldly remind each other that his win is her win, your win is my win, their win is our win.
And when we work for the good of all kids in our communities, together, we all win together.