Image by Sally Mahoney
How can we make 2016 the year we reinvent public education? It’s a tall order. But if we set a few key intentions for our work, we have a shot at making real progress.
For starters: let us please, PLEASE not get so caught up in the Presidential race that we ignore state and local elections. That might be hard, given that the 2016 election basically started in 2014, and has only gotten uglier and weirder as the months wear on. But progressives have long had the bad habit of over-focusing on federal and Presidential politics at the expense of down-ticket candidates and the important public officials who work in state and municipal government. This is a problem in all issue areas, but it’s a particularly big deal in education, given the intensely local nature of school governance.
Especially now that the Every Student Succeeds Act has replaced No Child Left Behind as the law of the land, we need to focus on recruiting, developing, and electing local- and state-level officials who are strong advocates for full and fair funding of schools, and for equitable education policies. Likewise, we need to vote out anyone who is not making our students and our schools a top priority. Are your school board representatives turning public schools over to private interests? Organize them out of a job. Is your city council authorizing tax breaks for big business while local schoolchildren don’t have a library? Send them packing.
Make no mistake: whether it’s a local, state, or national race, it’s hard work to elect a candidate, and even harder to unseat or recall bad electeds already in office. But we draw on the same time and energy to do any of those things, and it’s our local and state leaders who ultimately control what happens to our local schools (and thus, our property taxes, or our children’s education, and even our careers).
Let’s put our energy and resources where they can make the most difference. Recent local organizing victories in places like Philadelphia’s City Council and Mayoral race set a worthy example for those of us who want to do more than rail against bad education policies in our cities and towns, and advocate for better policy and people who will actually enact it.
We also need to ensure that we don’t just pay attention to dismantling the testing juggernaut that transformed a nice-sounding phrase like “No Child Left Behind” into a source of near-universal disgust. Don’t get me wrong: I am as opposed to test-and-punish ed policy as anyone could be. But we can’t forget that No Child Left Behind once had (and for some organizations, still has) legitimate political cachet for a reason: namely, the decades-long neglect of students of color, students with special needs, and students living in poverty.
We cannot allow state and local officials to revert to ignoring our neediest students—who are now the majority of American public school students. Organizing, policymaking, and practice that uplifts these students and our communities need to be at the center of everything we do.
Let’s make this the year we move toward building socially, racially, and economically just learning and teaching environments in every community. To do that, we must look beyond education to ensure just living environments in every community.
The inequality and injustice that surrounds us is neither natural nor inevitable. As our country grapples with huge conversations on race, class, and social justice, the moment is ripe for us to raise public awareness and invest in solutions.
People made and continue to make decisions that impoverish and segregate our schools; people made and continue to make decisions that consign almost all of our students to outdated and undemocratic approaches to schooling. That means we the people can decide to do things differently. Let’s resolve to do so.
Sabrina Stevens is Midatlantic Regional Progressive Education Fellow. She’s also a mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, DC. She is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that works to elevate the voices of people of color in the education policy dialogue.