After the Election, Taking Our Eyes Off the Prize
In the wake of a wrenching presidential election season, we in the education reform community are struggling to adjust to a new landscape. After eight years of an administration that promoted equity in education and supported college and career ready standards and efforts to improve educator effectiveness, we face uncertainty with the transition to a new administration. But more than that, we’re facing raw emotions of a magnitude I’ve never experienced in my adult life. The nomination of Betsy DeVos, a vocal advocate of school choice and vouchers, for Secretary of Education has left many of us scrambling for how to react. So far, we’re not doing very well.
Teach For America, which has been the backbone of the reform community for 25 years, released a statement expressing their core values of diversity, equity and inclusion, and calling on Ms. DeVos to uphold these values as Secretary. To those outside the education bubble, this likely seems innocuous. Not in these times. From one side, TFA was attacked for being partisan (as though diversity, equity and inclusion should be partisan values), and for not rooting for Ms. DeVos to succeed; from the other side, they were criticized for not proclaiming that they’ll refuse to work with an administration that operates in conflict with their values.
The reaction to TFA’s statement on Ms. DeVos is but one example. Across the sector, I see a lot of friends of good will, talent and passion writing people off who disagree with them on how to react to the new administration.
Regardless of which “side” you’re on, though, the fevered drawing of lines within and beyond the reform community is very unfortunate. It is counterproductive to the mission we share: ensuring all kids, regardless of where they’re from or what they start with, get a high-quality education that helps them succeed. There are important debates to be had about how to deal with our new reality and what the election of Mr. Trump says about where we are as a country. Let’s have those debates, by all means. But let’s start with an acknowledgement that this is a difficult time. Let’s strive to communicate, to learn, to understand, to re-connect on the principles and issues that unite us—while debating our differences in a constructive way.
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I understand the emotions underlying these internecine struggles; I feel many of them myself. We are confronted with millions of students who are not getting fair opportunities from our education system and who, in my view, need strong support from all levels of government—and need it right now. We have a crisis of bullying and suicide among LGBTQ students; we have millions of students of color missing school because of biased discipline policies and missing out on challenging classes because of biased enrollment policies; we have students who came to our country as babies worried about being deported to countries they’ve never visited, and many others worried about their families being split apart. And we have millions of students of all backgrounds who are trapped in schools where they have no chance to reach their goals, with no options to attend a better school elsewhere.
Will the Trump Administration improve the quality of education for these children? The messages coming out of the Trump campaign and transition team—which I believe include bias and scapegoating—cause me to worry deeply about that.
We can and should debate the best way to overcome these challenges. I certainly don’t expect any Republican administration to see mandates from the federal government as an effective strategy for doing so. But what is the alternative, and how will the Trump Administration support it?
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll listen to what Ms. DeVos and the Administration have to say about how they’ll tackle these issues. At TNTP, our mission is focused on standing up for kids who don’t get a fair opportunity from our education system. Abdication is not an option. We will continue to support educators, kids, and families—their aspirations, their work, and their needs did not take a pause after the election. So we’ll remain vigilant, speaking out about how we believe the Dept. of Education needs to protect their interests, and holding the Administration accountable when they fail to do so. If they pursue policies that we believe will promote equity and excellence, we’ll give due credit.
We will also appreciate that this presidential election was like no other, and each individual and organization will have to determine how to approach the Trump Administration. We won’t write off education reformers who are optimistic about Ms. DeVos, those who take a wait-and-see attitude, nor those who feel they must oppose the Administration across the board. If all kids are going to get an excellent education, we’re going to need to continually build a community that supports change. Anyone who is committed to a system that serves all kids and understands that institutional racism and bias is a driver of education inequity should be an ally—regardless of where they stand on the question of whether and how to engage with our incoming president and his team.