I’m a Sam Seaborn Democrat. As the idealistic West Wing character once said:
Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to it citizens, just like national defense.
The work itself is incredibly difficult. Despite the changes that have occurred in the past decades, many of our children and families still face systematic obstacles rooted in the legacy of slavery, segregation and institutional racism. We can talk about the day-to-day challenges of planning engaging lessons, using data to monitor progress and differentiation, but the pushback from the system will remain. The system in practice did not and does not function to support all children and all families.
We Are Shutting Down Innovation and Key Voices in the Debates
The debate on what to do is fierce and incredibly troubling. Just last weekend, a Public Education Forum featured some of the leading Democratic candidates for President. There was talk about Title I funding, funding for students with special needs, funding for pre-K programs and increasing teacher salaries. Education ought to be expensive and teachers should be rewarded handsomely, but is that all it will take to change the system?
Educators and families proposing additional remedies to this national malady, like parent power, teacher accountability and the development of innovative school models—including public charter schools—were met by event sponsors wearing ‘F$%&k Charter Schools’ t-shirts and police blocking the entrances. In fact, many of the politicians on the stage, while not saying the words on the t-shirt, showed their agreement with the sentiment through their policies. Based on their statements, the Democratic candidates at the Public Education forum would wrongly lead their supporters to believe that charter schools are the ultimate evil in the fight for a more just educational system.
I do not for a minute believe that charter schools are the single answer to gross inequalities that exist in our educational system. However, I do believe there is much to be learned from systems that resist the status quo and experiment with new ideas. High expectations, diverse teaching staffs and strong adult accountability measures are all ideas that public charter schools have continued to develop and refine.
Changing Public Education Requires Visionaries
Without true systemic change, the large quantities of money that most politicians have been promising for educational uplift will not have the impact we desire. One only needs to look at Mayor DeBlasio’s failed school turn-around plan in New York City to see evidence of that. The mayor funneled over $700 million dollars to struggling schools. The money saw a marginal improvement in attendance, helped reduce chronic absenteeism and did not do much of anything else. Close to a billion dollars was spent and close to 60% of the children in New York still do not read on grade level.
In the current political climate, we need bold visionaries who will fight against the status quo. We need visionaries who will put student outcomes and student interests before adults and special interest groups. Leaders need to partner with families and hear all voices, including those representing public charter schools. Most importantly, families—regardless of zip code or ability to finance a mortgage—must be able to choose the right pathway for their children.