Education Makes The Progressive Punchlist

Jeff Bryant

For years, the progressive punchlist of issues has neglected education policy.

Back in the 2012 election, education was mostly a no-show in presidential debates, and very few candidates were standard bearers for public schools, leaving these issues primarily to ballot initiatives totally remote from party or movement platforms.

Again in 2014, a strong coalition in support of public education generally did not affect political campaigns, with the exception of Tom Wolf’s strong victory over incumbent Tom Corbett in the Pennsylvania governor’s race.

More recently, there have been disturbing signs education issues pertaining to K-12 schooling would again be left off the progressive agenda for 2016.

But there are now indications education – in its entirety, from pre-K through college – may be taking its place as a mainstay on progressive platforms.

On the national scene, calls for universal access to early childhood education have now become practically ubiquitous, thanks in part to some leadership from the Obama administration and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Also, the staggering mountain of loan debt this nation has piled onto college students has now become an issue every national candidate seems compelled to address. “The rise in college costs – and student-loan burdens – is breaking through as a hot issue in the 2016 presidential race,” The Wall Street Journal declares. “Congressional Democrats are advocating for debt-free public higher education and pushing party front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton to take up the issue in her campaign,” says The Washington Post.

Support for K-12 education appears to be joining the list, too.

Robert Reich: “Reinvent Education”

In 2013, the Education Opportunity Network, in partnership with Campaign for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn campaign, published a progressive plan for education policy called the Education Declaration to Rebuild America. Renowned economist Robert Reich was one of the first prominent voices to give his support to that document. Now Reich has teamed up with progressive dynamo MoveOn.org to press this progressive agenda further.

In its video series on “The Big Picture: 10 Ideas to Save the Economy” MoveOn features Reich explaining progressive pathways to getting America back on track to a nation of middle-class prosperity. One of the ten ideas is to “Reinvest Education.”

In a three-minute video, Reich says “fixing” education is “crucial to our kids and the economy,” and he addresses not only the now required support for universal pre-K and college loan debt relief, but also addresses K-12 policy.

He calls current education policies an “outmoded” assembly line approach left over from the last century and outlines a six-point education agenda that can be part of every movement progressive’s policy plan.

1. Stop Endless Testing – It’s “destroying the love of teaching and learning,” he says. “Give teachers space to teach and students freedom to learn.” By now, it’s obvious the nation’s obsession with standardized testing in grades K-12 has done nothing to lift the education achievement of low-income students and create more equity in the system. There are moves already underway to turn back the tide of testing. Let’s support those and propose better alternatives to testing.

2. Limit Class Sizes – Classes should have no more than 20 students, he maintains, so teachers can give students the attention they need.” This makes sense, and there’s a significant research base to support it. Austerity minded reformers have been engaged in a war on class size, but parents and voters have generally fought them every step of the way. After all, why do elite private schools tout small class sizes in marketing their programs?

3. Increase Funding and Services – In calling for increased federal funding for education, Reich wants to see more financial support for educating low-income students. In particular, he wants poor children having more access to high quality early childhood education and money for “community based schools that serve the whole child with health services, counselors, and after school activities.” Recent research has found these types of educational interventions hold promise, and there are practical models of this approach from real schools to follow.

4. Technical Training – Questioning the current push for a universal “college readiness,” Reich calls instead for high school students to have opportunities to pursue other post-secondary education paths such as technical education. He believes there should be lots of avenues into the middle class, “not just four-year college.” It’s important to note what Reich proposes is not a dual-track system where some students follow an education course of study that destines them for a particular life or career outcome. Instead, high school students should have opportunities, before they graduate, to pursue their varied interests.

5. Make Higher Education FREE – “Higher education isn’t just a personal investment,” Reich insists. “It’s a public good.” Students of all ages need the opportunity to learn as much as they can, and when they do, society benefits by having a more educated work force and more well-informed citizens capable of participating in democracy. In calling for this, Reich has joined with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and newly declared Democratic Party presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders to erase college student loan debt and ensure it never becomes an impediment to education attainment again.

6. Increase Teacher and Staff Pay – Reich points out that while investment bankers are getting paid “a fortune to tend to America’s financial capital,” we’re neglecting the pay of teachers and other public education staff who “develop the nation’s human capital.” Just like in all other arenas, in education money matters. Yet in some parts of America, full-time teachers make so little money they qualify for food stamps and can take as long as 16 years to reach a salary level of $40,000. Research has found strong correlation between investment in the quality and quantity of school staffing and student outcomes, so yes, invest more in teachers.

Why Education Belongs On Progressive Platforms

It’s important to note, the progressive education agenda MoveOn and Reich call for is similar to what other prominent progressive advocates have put forth.

In its “Populism 2015 Platform: Building a Movement for the People and the Planet,” the Campaign for America’s Future states, “Every child must have the right to high-quality, free public education.” CAF cites “preschool, smaller classes, summer and after-school programs, and skilled teachers” along with “free four-year, post-high school education” and “relief” to student debt as education “basics” our government should provide. [Full disclosure: CAF is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network.]

All of this platform-proclamation is what my colleague at CAF Robert Borosage calls the beginning of an “ideas debate” that he believes will dominate the 2016 elections.

Looking beyond the spotlight of the big money in the contest, Borosage identifies a “competition to formulate a compelling message and agenda that appeals to voters.” That competition is between “the authority of the old elite arguments” and a rising populism that is calling for policies that produce greater equity in the economic outcomes of Americans.

So if national politics is going to be about ideas, which ones? And who decides?

While progressives in prominent media outlets, advocacy groups, and Congress have been silent or uncertain on education policy, public schools have endured a decades-long regime of top-down austerity and standardization enforced by a test-and-punish philosophy. Centrist “Wall Street” Democrats have colluded with the right wing to frame an education policy rooted in market-based thinking and school privatization as somehow “progressive.”

But given the new landscape Borosage describes, it would seem that if the debate pits a new brand of populism against an aging elite, then certainly we would expect progressive proclamations to be the products of from-the-ground-up efforts, manifesting themselves in public outpourings in town squares, city streets, and social media hubs across the country.

If that’s indeed the case, then the progressives must look to signs everywhere of a widespread discontent with current education policies.

Last week alone brought numerous examples of the populist upheaval related to public school teachers. In Seattle, thousands of teachers across the city walked out of schools to protest funding cuts that would increase class sizes and undo promises to increase teacher pay. In Newark, a thousand students walked out of classes across the city to protest a decision by the district’s state-run management to ignore student and parent voices and turn more public schools over to privately operated charter school management groups. The venerable PBS News Hour reported on the explosive growth of the nationwide rebellion against standardized testing. “The movement has been relatively small in total numbers,” William Brangham explained. “But it picked up a lot of support this year in places like New York State, where as many as 165,000 students opted out. In New Jersey, 15 percent of the high schoolers who were slated to take the tests chose not to do so.”

A Winning Issue, If Progressives Want One

Further, a progressive stance on education can win elections. This has been most evident in the recent victories achieved by progressive mayoral candidates in New York City, Newark, and now Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia example is especially instructive. As local Philly journalist Will Bunch explains, the progressive victory in that city drew its strength “from regular citizens exercising their 1st Amendment rights in the city that produced the 1st Amendment.” In particular, Bunch notes “Philadelphia school kids who … clogged Broad Street with their signs of protestfast-food workers and the airport workers who risked their jobs … to demand a higher minimum wage … educators and the parents who screamed bloody murder … hundreds who snaked their way through the streets of Philadelphia on a cold December night … carrying signs with their simple yet profound message, that #BlackLivesMatter.”

Like Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter, the movement to resist and reform the nation’s policies governing public education has now gone mainstream and become woven into the media narrative of grassroots discontent surging across the country.

Some progressives are starting to get this.

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