Charter Schools

Democrats Are Finally Talking Public Education, But You Probably Won't Be Invited to the Table

I couldn’t believe it.

Finally, education was going to take center stage at the 2020 Public Education Forum.

All the major Democratic candidates (and some not so major) will be there, including Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet, as well as Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer.

I was so excited for this event, to finally hear these candidates talk about something so near and dear to my heart; the inalienable right of all children in this land to access quality education regardless of wealth, race, religion or zip code.

But then I read more.

This forum, as acknowledged by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is purely about “AFT’s endorsement process.” This isn’t about talking to parents and American families. It’s a presidential audition for an endorsement worth tens of millions of dollars (a fact not lost on Andrew Yang as he thanked the @AFTunion for its invite).

And while the forum is being live-streamed online, it is worth noting that access to this forum on public education is, ironically, far from public. Members of the AFT are invited to enter a contest to gain access, while 1,000 or so carefully selected educators, students, parents and community members have been invited to speak with the candidates about their education plans. 

As a frequent contributor to a major education blog, Education Post, I thought I had a better shot of getting in as a member of the press. But not only is this public education forum closed to the public, its press credentials are being offered as selectively as slots at a big city public magnet school.

I, sadly, am one of those barred entry—I received an email today that my credentials had been denied. “All credentialing decisions are made at the discretion of the host organizations and cannot be appealed.”

Why would this be?

I am a parent of a special needs child who attends his local public school. My partner is on the PTA. I worked to support local legislation to raise school budgets to support student mental health.

I am a former union member who has taught in the School District of Philadelphia—the largest district in the state where this event is occurring—and I have also taught in private schools as well as public charter schools.

I currently support and prepare teachers entering the classroom of all types of schools, proud to be a part of a team that is diversifying the teacher pipeline in Philadelphia and Camden.

I am a registered Democrat who has voted Democrat my entire life.

So why can’t I go see these candidates finally talk about education?

I think it’s because I don’t toe the AFT company line, particularly when it comes to charter schools.

Let me explain.

In addition to the AFT, this ‘public’ education forum is sponsored by a member coalition including OnePA which applauds itself for having “Successfully campaigned to stop charter schools in PGH [Pittsburgh] who privatize & extract resources from public schools.”

So now, instead of attending an inspiring, hopeful and long-overdue discussion on the need to radically overhaul our inequitable education system, we are being forced to live-stream this circus wherein a nearly all-White panel talks about educational realities that aren’t their own.

Not for nothing—the only person of color scheduled to attend, Cory Booker, is a charter school supporter. Charter schools are more highly regarded among Black and Latinx Americans than Whites.

Do you know who should be given VIP entrance to this forum?

  • Parents in Philadelphia whose “children are exposed to a stew of environmental hazards, both visible and invisible, that can rob them of a healthy place to learn and thrive.”
  • Parents of the 53% of Pittsburgh School District students who weren’t proficient in English. Parents of the 72% who weren’t proficient in math.
  • Parents in Nashville, “a city with 3 out of 10 public school third-graders reading on grade level and not even 2 out of 10 if you’re a student of color.” 
  • Parents of the 97% of students denied entrance to Stuyvesant High School in New York City.
  • Parents of the tens of thousands of students stranded on charter school waiting lists.
  • Any family without the means and privilege to play the real estate game to buy access to quality educational opportunity.

These are the people whose voices are silenced, literally left outside in the Pittsburgh December cold.

So much for progressivism

Photos via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr, CC-licensed.
Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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