The Heroism and Tragedy of Democrats for School Choice

I just spoke with someone from Democrats for Education Reform.  Their statement of principles is nothing less than heroic:

A first-rate system of public education is the cornerstone of a prosperous, free and just society, yet millions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children. This perverse hierarchy of priorities is political, and thus requires a political response.

Both political parties have failed to address the tragic decline of our system of public education, but it is the Democratic Party – our party – which must question how we allowed ourselves to drift so far from our mission. Fighting on behalf of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals is what our party is supposed to stand for.

Democrats for Education Reform aims to return the Democratic Party to its rightful place as a champion of children, first and foremost, in America’s public education systems.

We support leaders in our party who have the courage to challenge a failing status quo and who believe that the severity of our nation’s educational crisis demands that we tackle this problem using every possible tool at our disposal.

We believe that reforming broken public school systems cannot be accomplished by tinkering at the margins, but rather through bold and revolutionary leadership.  This requires opening up the traditional top-down monopoly of most school systems and empowering all parents to access great schools for their children.

We know that decisive action today will benefit our children, our party and ultimately our nation.

My heart beats with joy as I read these stirring words of principle!  These people really do care about children!

Yet in practice, because they are trying to work within the Democratic Party, they are forced to be unbelievably cautious.  Although the several people I’ve met within their organization are uncompromising and principled regarding doing what is best for children, they realize that their public statements must be extremely cautious lest they call forth the vindictive rage from the teachers’ unions.

For instance, although these people believe in school choice, at the policy level one of their primary initiatives is simply lobbying against seat-time requirements for public education.  In many states, course credit is defined and allocated strictly by means of how many hours a child sits in front of a teacher (seat time).  Meanwhile, thanks to technology, often children can cover significantly more content during a school year than would normally be covered in a course – I would estimate that 30-40% of students, for instance, could easily cover, say, both 5th grade math and 6th grade math in one school year rather than two.  (Khan Academy has actually received complaints from teachers because students are getting too far ahead on their own).  Thus many of our schools, for many of our students, are actually slowing learning down on behalf of an antiquated “seat time” principal of credit allocation that simply serves to make teachers’ jobs more secure (imagine how dangerous it would be to the education establishment to discover that many students can learn more, more quickly, without the teacher talking at them?)

Thus the tragedy of those intellectually honest and morally courageous Democrats who are for school choice:  They know in their hearts that it is the right thing, but they have put themselves in a position in which they must cower in fear before the threat of attacks from the teachers’ unions.

We need to mainstream the position that teachers’ unions have roughly the moral stature of tobacco companies.  The damage they cause is, of course, much greater than is that caused by tobacco companies.

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About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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