After months of speculation in what I personally believe is the least covered presidential campaign in modern history, Joe Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. The pick puts a period on the fiery exchange between the Vice President and U.S. Senator on the issue of school busing during a debate way back in June of 2019, before COVID-19 shut down schools nationwide and protests over racial injustice spread across the globe.
Now, as schools struggle with reopening plans, unions release wide-ranging demands, and parents cope with the prospect of perpetual schooling from home, debates over school busing may be far from mind. But with the selection of Senator Harris as Biden’s running mate, the time is ripe to discuss the history of race, education and opportunity in America. We must also consider how history will judge those in power.
On that debate day in June, Harris helped magnify the legitimate and ongoing lack of access to high-quality schools for all, though neither she nor Biden has extrapolated on a policy solution since.
The pointed questions she asked of Biden were perhaps rooted more so in politics than policy. Her personal connection to busing sharpened her contrast with Biden, whose age and longevity in the party had become points of vulnerability. After all, Harris was eight years old when Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Incidentally, I was eight years old when Harris was first elected to public office. While Harris was riding a bus to a grade school outside of her neighborhood, Biden was creating policy in Washington D.C. And when Harris was devising reentry programs to disrupt a cycle of youth incarceration in California, I was stuck in a school that was putting kids on a path to prison. School busing wasn’t my way out, but school choice was.
Our experiences are tinted by the times in which we grow and live. Senator Harris’s youth, relative to Vice President Biden’s, will be an asset, not only to the ticket’s electability, but also to the ways in which they may govern. As she finds herself cemented in history as the first Black woman to be chosen as a vice presidential running mate for a major party, she has a new opportunity to stand on the right side of history by standing up for Black kids.
Harris positioned herself to hold the Democratic Party of the past accountable for falling short on matters of race. By infusing the issue of schooling and race into the presidential primary, she unearthed a reality many Democrats prefer to leave buried: Public schools have been failing poor children and children of color for decades. Many months, thousands of protests, and an official VP pick later, Senator Harris has an even more powerful platform for pushing the party forward by siding with the millions of lower-income parents desperate to provide their children with the best opportunities for high-quality education.
In the wake of the busing debate debacle, and in a nod to the pragmatism that buoyed him throughout his long career, Biden said “I don’t believe a child should have to get on a bus to attend a good school. There should be first-rate schools of quality in every neighborhood of this nation, especially in 2019 America.” It was President Obama’s commitment to charter schools that helped prove this is possible. Indeed, President Obama did more to grow high-quality charter schools than any elected official in history. So, what will the Biden and Harris team do for the children of American in 2020 and beyond?
As we enter the final months of a campaign colored by the COVID-19 crisis, education will almost certainly be thrust once again into the spotlight. As someone who was stuck in a failing school, I know firsthand the importance of giving families a way out. I know the sting of being told to wait for a school to improve when, without school choice, you have no other option but to wait. I know how grateful my parents were for a policy that made another option possible for me. And I know that option changed my life.
Senator Harris is the daughter of immigrants. Her parents came to America, her mother from India and her father from Jamaica, in pursuit of a world-class education. Both saw successes in their own careers, and now, their daughter is vying for one of the highest offices in the world. She exemplifies the American dream. And now she carries the dreams of millions of children who see in her what they can become. Along with Vice President Biden, she can help those children now by vowing to end the inexcusable blockade against school choice.