When Arne Duncan steps down as Secretary of Education, he’ll leave big shoes to fill. But I have no doubt that John King is the right person for the job. This nation needs education leaders who believe in the potential of
all children. In that spirit, I am inspired to share an excerpt of
a speech that our future education secretary delivered last year at New York University in April 2014. He knows we have to protect our most vulnerable children because he once was that child—a child saved by the devotion of amazing educators.
I became an educator for a very simple reason: I know that school can be the difference between hope and despair for a child—and especially a child at risk, whether it’s from poverty, disability or a difficult family situation. I know that an amazing teacher can save lives because one of my elementary school teachers at P.S. 276 in Brooklyn saved mine. His name was Alan Osterweil. My mother died when I was 8. At the time, my father was suffering from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. It was just the two of us in my house. Over the next four years, he declined rapidly and then he passed away when I was 12. During those years, life outside of school was scary and unpredictable—but in Mr. Osterweil’s classroom I was safe, I was nurtured, and I was challenged. We read the New York Times every morning; we did a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Mr. Osterweil’s classroom, the world beyond Canarsie was opened up to me. We worked hard in Mr. Osterweil’s class and we discovered the joy of learning. As a teacher, principal and policymaker, my goal is and has always been to give every student what Mr. Osterweil gave me—a classroom where they feel supported and inspired and challenged. That’s all I want for our nation’s children. We all want that–but sometimes politics gets in the way. I have always tried to separate the politics of education from the substance of the issue. This is a historic moment and an opportunity to lead the whole country. I have never been more confident because I know there are thousands and thousands of smart and dedicated teachers who share Mr. Osterweil’s passion and commitment. They’re devoted to their students and willing to do whatever it takes to help them get over the bar we have set for ourselves. I know there are millions and millions of parents who want only the best for their children and who are willing to be good partners with their children’s teachers in meeting those goals. One of the gifts my mother gave me when I was little was that she taught me to look for the good in everyone. I hope that we can all see the good in each other and begin to move forward together—because the alternative is unthinkable. Children have been waiting for too long for the education they desperately need, while the adults have become paralyzed by the politics of education. We can’t get back a single day stolen from our children because we could not find common ground. We all have to own that and accept responsibility for every missed opportunity. That means we have to resolve here and now not to let another day go by where we are arguing about process instead of delivering an effective education to children. Not another day should go by when we are more concerned with making ourselves look good and making others look bad, because we all look bad and nothing good comes of it.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with