Can we all agree that the basic care and development of America’s children—yes, every single one of them—is a cardinal virtue that should live unbothered by race, class, geography, ideology and partisanship? And if publicly funded education systems are the single most powerful investments we make as a society to fulfill our responsibility of raising healthy kids into capable adults, shouldn’t politicos of all stripes share a good-faith policy agenda to advance our goals?
Yes, this is another lamentation about the passing away of the once-beloved bipartisanship in education reform policy. It was beautiful while it lasted. I’m sorry it died.
Leading Democrats running for president have all but said they will outlaw school choice, charter schools and parent power—a promise likely to unjustly trap millions of kids on the margins in education dead zones where their great potential will be lost to poor preparation.
Across the aisle, Republicans have become unlikely supporters of handing over $700 billion annually to public schools with no accountability, standards or expectations. It’s a gold medal recipe for an education system that is mostly a jobs program for government workers who fight harder for their own rights than they do for better student outcomes.
The left will say their opponents are hell-bent on “destroying” public education, which causes them to incessantly shout “save our schools” rather than “save our kids who are in schools.” For their part, the right will say liberals will stop at nothing to defend the unionized teachers who act as a solid voting block for the Democrat party. That’s true.
Lost in the volley are parents who only want their children to have a fair shot at succeeding in work and life.
In a politically, religiously and ideologically diverse country we’ll always disagree on some fundamentals in education. We may never fully agree on how public schooling should be shaped, what it should offer, who should run it, what it should teach, how its money should reach the children who drive its investments. But these are system-centric concerns that miss the point. While we argue (stupidly, in my opinion) about the education bureaucracy, its budgets and its army of employees, we lose sight of the fact that education is deeply personal, must be done with the consent of the pupil and their guardian, and isn’t worth much if graduates aren’t able to pursue meaningful work when they exit the K-12 system. On that last point, only 3% of Americans believe high schools excel at preparing students for college, and only 5% believe students are prepared for work.
Political polarization isn’t new. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. In education, however, we may be more frayed than in the past. The need for commonsense policymaking has never been greater. It’s clear we desperately need to return to the question of “how are the children,” and start defining our leaders by their capacity to unite us around solutions.
Can those leaders build a new coalition, a nonpartisan one that loves children more than it hates its opponents?
Can they attract people of good faith, high integrity and sharp policy skills—across the spectrum of beliefs—to fight for an education system that is student-centered, results-focused, properly supported and transparently monitored?
Can they put away childish squabbles and be the adults we deserve our leaders to be?
If we love our children as more than props in labor disputes, more than pawns in ideological struggles, and more than nameless, faceless units in classrooms, we will find a way to work with those we differ with politically but agree with on one cardinal truth: the unsurpassable worth of every child.
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, ...