Chalkbeat recently reported about a March meeting of progressive education reformers where former Education Secretary Arne Duncan encouraged charter leaders to resist the Trump administration’s proposed budget by
rejecting new funds for charter schools. The story highlighted the challenge of being a left-leaning school choice advocate in the age of Donald Trump, where school choice is increasingly identified with his administration. As a left-leaning, pro-school choice education reformer, my conscience is clear. I’m a political progressive first and an education reformer second. My politics begins with the American Dream and the policies that make good on the five core promises at the heart of the Dream:
Anyone who works hard deserves a job with a wage that supports a family;
An affordable home in a safe neighborhood;
Guaranteed, affordable health care;
A free, high-quality education for their kids and;
A secure retirement that maintains a decent lifestyle in old age.
That means I oppose lower taxes for the rich. They already have too much wealth and the rest of America doesn’t have enough. Our current levels of income inequality are politically, economically and morally unsustainable. The free market is not effectively redistributing income. Government has to step in. I support regulated capitalism that holds industry accountable for pollution and other costs to society. I support free trade but we should also help people whose livelihoods are displaced by globalization. I support most forms of energy production but we need to move away from high-polluting sources. We also have to support workers losing jobs in declining sectors like coal. I am for government funded health care because market-based solutions don’t guarantee coverage for all and they don’t keep down costs. I support collective bargaining and higher minimum wage laws because we need upward pressure on wages, especially in a global economy where more and more jobs migrate to lower-wage countries. I support government-subsidized housing for struggling families and a path to homeownership when they get on their feet. Just as no one should go hungry in a country as wealthy as ours, no one should be homeless or go broke keeping a roof overhead. I support retirement programs of all types, defined benefit, defined contribution and Social Security, but I worry that public sector pension programs are unaffordable. Today, state and local budgets are increasingly strained by pension obligations. It’s not a matter of principle. It’s a matter of simple math. And finally, I support free, high-quality public education in all forms, including traditional public schools and public charter schools. My support for labor unions notwithstanding, I see teachers unions as a
potential force for good but often as an obstacle to quality and innovation. I am fine with non-unionized public charter schools that get good results. I oppose school vouchers on policy grounds. I think private schools will never serve the neediest students and cannot be effectively regulated. Moreover, vouchers could lead to a middle-class entitlement we cannot sustain, which would weaken the political constituency for public schools. Candidly, I’m conflicted on the voucher issue. I’m a product of private schools and I chose private schools for my kids during their elementary years. Many allies in the school reform movement support vouchers and I respect their argument: Poor children cannot wait indefinitely for the promise of better public education. If they can buy it today, with a little help from government, who are we to say no? Ultimately, my support for education reform boils down to one core principle: empowering parents and students. That’s why I am deeply committed to amplifying parent and student voice through our work at Education Post. Too often they are ignored. That’s why I support school choice. Parents have the right to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs, including their neighborhood school. The system has no right to deny that choice. No one should be forced to attend a school that isn’t meeting their needs. It’s also why I support school accountability. Teachers and administrators work for parents, students and taxpayers. When public schools fall short, there must be consequences, meaningful policy changes and, when needed, personnel changes.
Parents also have the right to know the truth about their child’s progress. The system has an obligation to tell parents the truth about student outcomes—through testing and other means. But parents also have the right to resist testing and choose other indicators of student progress. If parents feel their kids are over-tested, they have the right to have their child skip a test, but I oppose the educators and administrators who encourage it. Hiding the truth about school performance is irresponsible at best and self-serving at worst. Finally, I support much greater investment in education, including at the federal level. Millions of low-income children and children with special needs are not getting the education they need and deserve. Good teachers are grossly underpaid in many places. Our system of education is structurally inequitable and therefore fundamentally un-American. President Trump may agree with me on public school choice, but we are far apart on so many other issues. I have great faith in the wisdom of the American electorate. Trump’s time will end soon but our work to improve schools serving poor children continues, regardless of who is in the White House.
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