For most of the past two months, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform agenda had been torn apart by his fellow Democrats in control of the state legislature. Thanks to the menacing lobbying of the Nutmeg State’s National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates (and memories of what happened two years ago to then-Rep. Jason Bartlett after he teamed up with what is now the Connecticut Parents Union to successfully advocate for the passage of the nation’s second Parent Trigger law), the state legislature’s education committee had all but ditched Malloy’s proposed teacher quality reforms and expansion of charter schools. As I mentioned in last week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, legislative leaders in that state have proven to be so pusillanimous that they all but kowtowed to the NEA during one of its rallies.
But as it turns out, at least half of Malloy’s reform effort may actually survive. Why? Largely because of the legislature’s black and Latino caucus, which offered up its own support of Malloy’s original plan last week through their own set of proposals. By unveiling their own proposals, the group (which includes state representatives Gary Holder-Winfield and Billie Miller), have stood up to the NEA and AFT affiliates, and called out the legislature’s education committee (along with state House Speaker Christopher Donovan and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, who engaged in last month’s embarrassing display of poor leadership). More importantly, their endorsement — coming just as the legislative session is coming to an end — gave Malloy and grassroots reformers on the ground enough well-timed support to force legislators to come up with more reform-minded legislation. (Whether or not the new version will be a strong step toward systemic reform is a different question entirely.)
The leadership showed by Holder-Winfield, Miller, and their colleagues on behalf of Connecticut’s poor and minority children is absolutely commendable. And it is an example black politicians elsewhere should follow.
Far too often, black politicians spend far too much time aiding and abetting policies and practices that condemn the futures of young black men and women than embracing solutions that can help our kids get the high-quality education they need and deserve. The most-recent example can be seen in Alabama where state Sen. Quinton Ross — a senate education committee vice chair — declared that allowing charter schools to exist would lead to the ”hijacking, for the lack of a better word, of our public education system.” Then there is the continued obstinacy of Ross’ colleague in Virginia, state Sen. Henry Marsh, who voted against a voucher-like tax credit program because it was in his eyes “a war on public education.” And while big-city mayors such as Cleveland’s Frank Jackson and Newark’s Cory Booker, are actively agitating for reform, there are far too many black mayors who are more than willing to just turn a blind eye to the dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity whose dropouts and poorly-educated graduates weigh down the very economic revival efforts these chief executives undertake.
This isn’t exactly shocking. Even as a younger generation of civil rights activists realize that overhauling American public education is the most-critical next step for helping young black men and women achieve economic and social equality of opportunity — and address the ills that plague black communities, especially in urban areas, in this day and age — old-school black politicians and civil rights leaders continue to fight battles of the 1960s and 1970s that they largely won decades ago. From where they sit, integration, busing and equity lawsuits are the cures for low-quality education, even as decades of evidence has shown that none of those formulas do anything to address the systemic problems within American public education. Driven by both their financial and political ties to NEA and AFT affiliates, and their mistaken belief that school choice will lead back to the kind of segregation that earlier generations of civil rights leaders so successfully opposed, these politicians discredit their otherwise-laudable legacies opposing state-sanctioned racial bigotry.
But the good news is that there are black political leaders who understand that the only way that we can revive and sustain our communities — and help all young black men and women succeed in life — it to address the fundamental issues of abysmal teacher quality, shoddy curricula, cultures of low expectations, and Zip Code Education policies that deny high-quality choices. This means standing up up to teachers’ union officials and other education traditionalists who think that black leaders should just go along with what they propose, and battling with legislative leaders who insist that they should just toe the line. It also means taking on old-school players who still wield tremendous influence. This includes state legislators such as Oklahoma State Rep. Jabari Shumate, whose efforts to back school choice put him in the crosshairs of the state’s NEA affiliate, and Mississippi State Rep. Chuck Espy, scion of the famed political family who has been pushing for legislation allowing for the creation of charter schools in a state in which high-quality education in traditional district settings is almost hard to find even for white middle-class families. And now there are black politicians in Florida and Louisiana taking strong stands for reform — and reform-minded candidates running for office throughout the country.
This is certainly good news. But we need to rally more black politicians around reform. This starts by developing young leaders within churches and in the grassroots willing to take on longstanding politicians whose continued presence in state legislatures does little for our children, their families, and the communities in which they live. This is why the growing Parent Power movement (along with the development of student groups such as Students For Education Reform) is so important; when mothers and fathers move from being bystanders in education to demanding their rightful place as lead decision-makers in schools, they also learn how to play the political game and, in the process, become the battle-ready politicians who can navigate the political arena. At the same time, we must continually (yet respectfully) challenge old-school black politicians to do the right thing by our kids; they must be reminded that their past successes in breaking barriers mean nothing if our children don’t have the literacy, numeracy, and knowledge of science needed to take advantage of opportunities.
It’s good to see Holder-Winfield, Miller, and their colleagues stand up and be counted for systemic reform. For the sake of our children and the future of Black America, we need more like them.