An education-forward Democratic platform: Democracy’s silver bullet?

An education-forward Democratic platform: Democracy’s silver bullet?
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As news outlets begin to clamor over each new contender for the 2020 presidential nomination and pundits emerge with models to predict Democratic voting, it may seem impossible to unite the party establishment with the Liberal Left, much less Black, Latino, Asian and Millennial voters. As an education policy researcher who studies the civic role of schools and schooling, I argue that targeting education, democracy’s ends as well as its means, can not only unite diverse voters, but may also be necessary to save our democracy.

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Democracy requires educated voters, the product of a high quality, accessible, public education system — and ours is in crisis. Whoever hopes to become the successful Democratic nominee ought to look to Rhode Island and Michigan where students are suing for access to an equitable, quality education. These young people want access to an education system capable of producing informed citizens with the knowledge base necessary not only to exercise and protect everyone's right to vote, but also to participate in the democratic process.

In 1954, the Supreme Court took steps to increase the share of informed citizens via the Brown v. Board decision; a decade later, the Voter Rights Act was passed.

Both have been under fire ever since.

Over the past 60 years, systematic efforts have been made to both underfund and undermine public education, from tuition tax-credits that make college less accessible for low-income students, to K-12 vouchers that divert funds from public education directly.

In her book, Democracy in Chains, historian Nancy McLean documents how, following Brown v. Board, conservative activists have tirelessly designed and passed legislation to maintain a privileged economic elite. In particular, advocates of the choice agenda have worked to discredit public education by interpreting federal reporting to manufacture a crisis and a hyper focus on outcome-based accountability that undermines the importance of access to a free, high quality education to American democracy. In fact, the choice agenda, both in the U.S. and abroad, largely benefits economic elites who had little use, much less need, for public education in the first place.

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Education researchers have documented how the rise of vouchers, charter schools, and tuition tax credits prompted an ideologically suspect education reform accountability movement disingenuously marketed to improve educational equality. Focused on outcomes rather than instructional or curricular access, the accountability movement was designed to undermine public trust in public education. Under-resourced schools perform poorly on a standardized assessment, which prompts calls to narrow the curriculum and go back to the basics, at which time critical thinking skills fall to the wayside as educators must focus instead on test preparation (a deprofessionalization that should be noted has resulted in an exodus of in-service teachers, a dearth of teacher certification applicants, and ultimately a national teacher shortage). Not unsurprisingly, test scores drop due to limited content exposure, especially for the most marginalized students, and schools are branded ‘failing,’ which in turn prompts middle-class parents to move their students out of public schools. Ultimately, only the most economically disadvantaged will attend public schools, which by then will have been stripped of the capacity to offer the civic education required to support democracy in the next generation.

Certainly, there will be those who argue that competition will produce better schools. However for a democracy to survive, everyone, not just a select few, must be well-educated.

I propose an Education-forward Platform that would:

  1. Repeal K-12 tuition tax credit laws, both at the state and federal levels, redirecting the funds back to public education. The platform will also need to consider how to undo damage from 1997’s higher education credits.
  2. Guide ESSA implementation to replace punitive accountability systems set in place by  NCLB and Race to the Top with state and local equity oriented programs that ensure educational equity students previously protected under federal Civil Rights law.
  3. Equitably fund education to support open-ended inquiry and critical thinking, cornerstones of a functioning democracy.
  4. Draw from Finland’s education reform which made teacher education one of the most competitive majors.
  5. Redirect school funding and teacher preparation towards democratic civic education rather than accountability.

In addition, it would capitalize on the current upswing in activism and involvement among young people disenchanted by a political establishment either unable or unwilling to address their demands.

The young people of Rhode Island and Michigan appear to be aware of something that many adults have not yet come to realize: our US public education system has been under continuous, debilitating fiscal and ideological attack their whole lives. Some slight, some intense, these incessant attacks on public education is the equivalent of death by a thousand cuts.

As such, Democrats of every stripe must rally behind around an Education-forward agenda, a tribute to its role in a participatory democracy. Without a high quality, freely-accessible, public education system, American democracy will not survive to the next generation. Now is the time for Democrats to unite around the charge of public education.

Rebecca Callahan is an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.