Achievement Gap

Can I Get a President Who Will Fight for Better Schools?

There almost seems to be a bipartisan conspiracy to make this year’s headline for presidential candidates “no standards, no choice and no sense.” This is a big problem. It says we’ve yielded too much in the debates about public education. I’m not sure why. As an education voter, I believe in a shortlist of necessary things: high standards, transparent accountability and school choice. The fact is charter schools have improved the landscape of public education for the urban poor. Of course we admit these schools are not perfect and we have a long way to go before their quality is anything close to uniform, but on balance they are breaking new ground and no candidate should get applause for wavering, or worse, by saying they will kill those promising schools if elected. That said, Bernie Sanders’ campaign must be celebrating the virality of his video at a Newton town hall where he says he won’t support charter schools as president. Instead, he will tax the rich so he can better compensate teachers. Cue union applause. I would have less of a problem if he wanted to tax those who can afford it, pay educators fairly, and respect the fact that charter schools enjoy broad support from black people. If Bernie’s charter hating was only the populist gonging of a quasi-socialist candidate yelling from the Green fringe I would not be concerned. But it is bigger than that. There has been a well-funded effort to fight reform that has made it unsafe for our friends and allies to walk upright. Hillary Clinton, once a pioneering Democrat and early adopter of charter schools as an option for low-income communities saddled with sputtering schools, must have anticipated the Bern months ago when she changed her tune too. As an endorsee of the American Federation of Teachers in this year’s presidential campaign, she has leveled union-aligned concerns about charter schools, teacher evaluations and student testing. Even the usually trusty supporters of education reform on the Republican side have walked away from supporting public school accountability. They have yielded to the bizarre fear of a black president and allowed their Bundy ranch to turn Common Core into “Obamacore” and test-based accountability into big government overreach. We know that accountability systems that set common standards and shared definitions for success have made it possible to know when children in one district or state are being poorly served in comparison to others. Those systems enable states to act on good information when intervening in schools that do poorly year after year, and are responsible for our ability to know— and enumerate—the achievement gaps that exist between children. No leader should propose handing over blank checks to states and expecting them to do the right thing for all students. That has proven to be the surest way to create a discordant wild west of standards and measurements that make educational disparities impossible to see. While it will always be imperative for potential presidents to talk about the importance of good jobs, it’s up to school reformers to remind them of how those jobs are filled. Educated people fill jobs, and the level of education needed is only going up. By 2020 the job economy will grow from 140 million to 165 million. The majority of new jobs will require post-secondary education, with 35 percent requiring at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent an associate’s degree. Since 1990, the era of school reform, the number of college degrees awarded to African Americans and Latinos has gone up. For blacks aged 25 to 29, the increase of bachelor's degrees increased from 13 to 22 percent; Latinos from 8 to 15 percent. Yet, the gap between both groups and whites widened substantially. Those with the most to lose if education reforms go sideways need to be on the vanguard of holding candidates to an agenda that sets high expectations for educational outcomes. Those of us who sincerely believe schools can do a better job with students in poverty have an alarming lack of candidates this year. We are a people without a country. I would love to offer some hope, but I have none. I want a president that understands the issues, has done the research, knows of the schools that do well everyday with children who struggle, and are willing to kick a little ass when necessary to protect the interest of kids who don’t have unions or privileged parents working the system for them. That candidate has yet to emerge. The smarter thing to do is to point out that all of this is a sign that we have a monstrous fight on our hands. We might need to do the ass-kicking ourselves.  
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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