Peter Cunningham

Let’s ‘Check Our Ideological Baggage at the Door’ When It Comes to Improving Schools

As the debate continues in Washington, D.C., and across the country about the role the federal government should have in Congress’  new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a Republican and Democrat with deep experience in education team up on RealClearEducation to argue for continued federal investment in and attention on our nation’s most troubled schools. The left-right duo is Peter Cunningham, Education Post’s executive director and former assistant education secretary, and Paul Pastorek, former state education chief in Louisiana. They write:
As a Democrat who worked in the Obama administration and a Republican who worked in a red state, we come to the issue from opposite ends of the political spectrum. One of us typically looks to government to regulate while one of us mostly hopes it will go away. But when it comes to students stuck in under-performing schools year after year we both need to check our ideological baggage at the door. While it’s true that many school fixes handed down from the top stumble in implementation, it’s also true that states and districts are rarely willing to make the tough decisions that most benefit kids at risk.
Amid lots of loud calls for “local control,” Pastorek and Cunningham make the case that when it comes to the local quality of something as important as education, there needs to be a federal investment and stronger protection than the honor system to ensure the local families and local kids are being served well.
So there are a couple of big takeaways. First, let’s be honest and recognize that states and districts overwhelmingly choose the easy path even though more aggressive changes tend to have larger impact. If you want real results for the federal investment you are making, you need to be specific about expectations. Second, to quickly make a meaningful difference in a school, it takes resources. We have to give teachers and principals a fighting chance to improve and that requires money for training, support and other essential investments. Lastly, you can’t give up. President George W. Bush said it well. Our federal policy should eschew the soft bigotry of low expectations. Fiscal conservatives should be serious about enforcing this policy with real results for the taxpayer dollar. Flexibility is certainly needed but without accountability, the money is wasted. Republicans may not like the federal government dictating solutions from Washington and Democrats may not like pressuring their political allies, but our core responsibility is to protect kids. Congress should keep mandated interventions for a share of our lowest-performing schools and fund the program. The alternative is to write off these kids.
Michael Vaughn
Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until ...

Join the Movement