Williams: Democrats Awash in Campaign Promises to Put More Money Into Education, but Silent on How to Change Schools to Better Serve Kids

Drew Angerer, Ethan Miller, Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Oakland, California

As soon as I walked into Chloe Rutter Jensen’s classroom at the Oakland School of Language, her 16 middle schoolers stopped their discussion of identity, stereotypes and prejudice. “Wait a second,” she said. “Ah … let’s do this. Let’s do him. We see someone white, what do we assume?” She repeated it in Spanish.

Her students — all of whom are children of color — brainstormed a list. Because I’m a white man who was wearing glasses, a ring and a suit, they figured I must be rich, educated, married, racist and a genius — and a Donald Trump supporter.

Later, I asked them about the school. One student said it’s “a good place to learn … also to see my friends.” Another praised her teachers, who “really understand me, really get to know each student.” Heads around the circle nodded in agreement. “Respetamos la cultura de cada uno,” said a boy — we respect each person’s cultures. Several children say the school is safer than the ones they attended before immigrating to the United States, but one sighs that the food in Guatemala was better — “It is more natural there. The food is cooked fresh and they put it on real plates.”

Others point to problems. The pencil sharpener’s been broken for a while, and “we need more supplies,” said one, “but our school’s poor.” A girl said her teachers aren’t paid enough.

This is public education in 2019. It’s working. It’s falling short. Like so many U.S. public schools, Oakland SOL is muddling through. What do you call a problem you’ve stopped trying to solve? You call it “the way things are.” You call it “the best we can do.”

It’s been a restless year in American public education. Teachers from West Virginia to Kentucky to Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland rallied, protested and staged walkouts to raise concerns over school funding, teacher pay and learning conditions in our public schools. Still, it’s striking: even with dozens of presidential campaigns launching a wide range of proposals for American renewal into our national discourse, the conversation around improving K-12 public education has been halfhearted and halting at best.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has promised to name a former public school teacher as her secretary of education. Sen. Kamala Harris and former housing secretary Julián Castro have proposed raising teachers’ salaries. Sen. Bernie Sanders has promised to expand the size and scope of several federally funded education programs and also target charter schools for additional oversight. Former vice president Joe Biden, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, just announced his plan, which would dramatically increase federal education spending to raise teachers’ salaries, expand access to pre-K and provide more equitable funding to schools serving large numbers of low-income students.

All in all, the field appears to have strikingly little appetite for staking out specific reforms to actually change K-12 schools. There’s some agreement that schools need more funding — it’s a campaign, after all, the natural habitat of policies that promise voters more — but candidates haven’t offered any ideas for reforming how schools operate to serve kids. There are around 50 million children in U.S. K-12 schools today, and many of them are struggling, but the country lacks a clear diagnosis of the problems they face and policy prescriptions to help them. By contrast, most candidates have announced plans to make early and postsecondary education more accessible and affordable.

The silence around K-12 reform is in part due to the end of a decades-long effort to comprehensively define success, quality, progress and failure for American schools. We spent the past 30 years designing and setting academic goals — and checking our progress with tests. In recent years, that approach has largely fallen out of favor. No Child Left Behind, the federal law most tightly associated with these goals, was rolled back in 2015.

It’s not that public education’s resource and equity challenges suddenly vanished, obviating the need for reform. No, it’s that reform sparked — and collapsed in the face of — considerable political pressure. Educators, parents and activists chafed against a system that rated schools on new academic metrics and applied top-down pressure to force local changes. Instead of outrage at many schools’ academic performance, political opposition coalesced around blaming the rising standards and the tests attached to them as simplistic and narrow.

Now that our national education debate is adrift, perhaps it’s worth admitting the bit of truth in this critique. It’s true that most schools are some admixture of succeeding and struggling, and that makes them hard to wholly overhaul — or unblinkingly defend. The reality of most campuses is complicated. Oakland SOL’s certainly is.

The school consists of a series of short buildings filled with worn furniture and weary, smart, good-hearted adults. There were leaks and cracks and scuffles. Things seemed frayed. They were not quite as they should be.

But, in a schoolwide town hall, the kids are curious and charming and impatient: recognizably normal adolescents. They boast and brag, they need to be heard, they need to practice making choices and reaping consequences. They have their age’s natural distractions — sarcasm, hormones, infatuation with the fast pleasures of a fast culture. They’re bad at staying children. They’re bad at acting like adults. They’re pretty much as they should be.

But they also face enormous challenges — on campus and in the future. Teacher Kavitha Kasargod-Staub says schools like hers are “taking on race, gender, language, systems of oppression. That’s important in any school, but especially here.” Normal as her students seem, they face daunting, systemic obstacles.

At the start of the day, I listened to two cheerful boys make the classroom rounds, selling snacks to fundraise for a field trip. In between hitting up friends for cash, they soberly talked about trouble with the police in their neighborhood — working out whether another kid deserved to be detained for yelling “[expletive] the police,” and the like. Then, in an instant, they’d flip back to performing their fundraising shtick. It was astonishing — they were goofy kids and beleaguered adults, in turns, back and forth, all in a matter of a few minutes. Things clearly were not as they should be.

Public education isn’t a sealed system, a problem to itself and of its own making. It has always been coterminous with the American public. As we have been racist, selfish and prejudiced, U.S. schools have hurt students of color, the poor and immigrant children. That won’t stop happening because we’ve run out of ideas for halting those oppressions. Without federal policies that pressure states, school districts and local campuses to address these inequities, they will continue.

After all, if we’re no longer thinking big about national education policy, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s animating crusade — replace the public education system with an unregulated education marketplace — is comprehensible. If we’re no longer comfortable using academic standards and tough accountability systems to drive school improvement, why not dismantle the system entirely?

At present, absent a comprehensive, urgent agenda, millions of American kids at schools like Oakland SOL continue muddling through. This is public education in America, where things are not as they should be, but that’s just about all we’ve come to expect.

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