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How partisan politics hijack progress in public education

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By Amanda Litvinov

Dr. John H. Jackson became President of the Schott Foundation for Public Education in 2007, after holding several leadership positions at the NAACP. “Despite the polarized political environment we have today, we can all agree that the current low graduation rate among minority and low income students, and the fact that too many students who do graduate are not college or career ready, is a problem,” Jackson told EducationVotes. The key for us to move forward, he said, is to recognize and set aside the partisan politics that pollute our conversation so we can take on the issues that act as barriers to young people’s learning. Here’s what else he had to say:

You’ve spoken about how partisan politics in the U.S. prevents meaningful progress in education reform. Give us an example of that.

When you look at so many candidates’ education platforms, they aren’t based on solid research as much as they are chosen for what’s politically feasible. Take charter schools, for example. Only 4 percent of American children attend charters, and only 17 percent of those charters outperform traditional public schools, so it just doesn’t add up that so much of the discussion around public education should be about charter schools. Further, the conversations that are anti-union don’t recognize the fact that if unions really were standing in the way of progress, schools in the south where there are very few collective bargaining agreements would be much better, and that’s not the case.

You’ve spoken of the need for systemic change that is supports-based rather than standards-based. Tell us more.

Improving the situation is going to take what I call game-changing policies. While common core standards are a great goal, their implementation is not a game-changer. Look at it this way: For any student who is drowning at school, moving the life preserver further away isn’t going to make them a better swimmer.  Our challenge is to identify the supports that will allow that child to become a better swimmer. The problem is that we’re operating in a political environment in which it’s easier to talk about standards and devise systems that are punitive in nature than to put together a comprehensive plan of supports for teachers to teach and students to learn.

What would this comprehensive plan ideally include?

It would have to ensure that every child has access to high quality early childhood education and is reading at grade-level by third grade. And for those students who are not, we have to ask what will impact their learning today. The lack of an agenda in this space is what created an opening for others to say to parents, well, let’s try to get your child this charter school or a voucher, even if there’s no real data to suggest that child will do better there.  For those students who are behind, we’ve got to use a more student-centered approach and provide them with what I call a Personal Opportunity Plan, with additional academic, social, and health supports to ensure that they can catch up and achieve a higher standard.

How can educators help move the conversation in the direction of support-based reforms?

Too often in the U.S., you find elected officials and legislators shaping the profession rather than educators.  The educator community has to offer a portfolio of policy models that work so they are not limited to a defensive posture. It’s very important that we widen the lens on education and see the policies and practices that lead to outcomes we don’t like at the local level.  New Jersey has been moving in the right direction since the state Supreme Court decision that increased equity by requiring additional supports and funding for underfunded districts. They didn’t just plug in more money, they targeted resources for early education and professional development for teachers. As a result, New Jersey is the only state with a significant Black male population with a greater than 65 percent high school graduation rate.

As governor, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney cut early education programs and funding for public institutions of higher education. He supports a national voucher system and has said time and again that class sizes don’t matter. What would you say to him?

Any proposal that does not provide opportunities for all children to learn falls far short. I have not seen a voucher program in any state that provides the opportunity for all students a high-quality education. Further, I’ve never seen a voucher program that is able to maintain the type of high standards in equity and excellence that are needed. Recognizing the significant number of students who are behind, it just doesn’t make sense suggest that we can increase class sizes at a time when we need more focus on student-centered approaches. Any agenda that cuts opportunities for more people to access early childhood education—and the data is very clear about the benefits of early childhood education—is problematic.

Our public education system still works. The vast majority of Americans are educated in the public education system, and the challenge is to find the policies and practices that make it work for all children, specifically low-income and communities of color. That’s a challenge we can overcome. To paint a picture that public education doesn’t work is a fiction, not reality. It works.

We all have a role to play in electing pro-public education candidates capable of setting aside partisan politics to do what’s best for students. Check out our Election 2012 page to see how the candidates stand on the issues.

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