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When Will “Progressives” Defend Public Education?

Defenders of public schools and quality education marching in Phildelphia. (Photo: file)

This morning I opened my email to find a message from “Bold Progressives,” who exist to rally support for Democratic Party candidates willing to fight for real change. The message was a survey from the “Progressive Change Campaign Committee,” asking if I thought Hillary Clinton should face a primary challenge. The second question is this:

Would you help press all Democratic candidates for president to run on bold progressive ideas?

 I clicked “yes,” and the following option appeared:

Check this box to sign the pledge to urge candidates to campaign on blood progressive ideas.

We want the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee to campaign on big, bold, economic-populist ideas that tangibly improve the lives of millions of Americans.

We urge all candidates for president to campaign on big, bold ideas — such as establishing a national goal of debt-free college at all public colleges and universities, expanding Social Security benefits instead of cutting them, creating millions of clean-energy jobs, reducing big money influence in politics, breaking up the “too-big-to-fail” Wall Street banks that crashed our economy, and ensuring that working families share in the economic growth they help create.

Notice anything missing from this bold agenda?

There is no mention of K12 education. No mention of the issues confronting public schools, the attempts to privatize, voucherize and charterize our schools. No mention of school closures in African American and Latino neighborhoods. No mention of assaults on teacher unions and due process rights. No mention of the test obsession destroying the quality of education in our schools, leading students to walk out by the thousands.

Will we go through another election where Republicans rail at the public school monopoly, and Democrats say virtually nothing? Will the next administration continue the policies advanced by the Obama/Duncan administration, requiring the use of test scores in teacher evaluation, and promoting the expansion of charter schools and Teach for America? Will we continue to have an administration  that promotes an “accountability” system centered on high stakes tests, and promotes school closures and other disruptions to public schools?

Will groups like “Democrats for Education Reform” continue to funnel buckets of hedge fund cash to candidates willing to support charter schools and Teach For America?

Organizations such as the “Bold Progressives” — and potential candidates for office —  need to wake up to the movement of teachers, parents and students that is taking shape across the country. I, for one, am unwilling to support candidates who refuse to go on record in support of public schools.

In advance of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election bid, the National Education Association made its endorsement more than a year ahead of the election. Teacher unions were “all in,” in their early public support of Obama, in spite of Race to the Top and other disastrous policies. I am not sure what we got for that support. Obama’s second term has brought more of the same. I hope our unions take a very different approach this time around, and demand that any candidate that receive our support reject high stakes testing and the use of tests in teacher evaluations, and truly support democratically controlled public schools.

The election race between Chuy Garcia and Rahm Emanuel is a bit of a preview of this, and could send a shock wave to Democrats who have gotten accustomed to ignoring their constituencies. Education is a huge issue in Chicago, and if Garcia wins on April 7, it will be because he had the full throated support of teachers — and the Chicago Teachers Union, out in the streets. Garcia has paid attention to education issues, and would not have teachers support without taking a clear stand. Progressives from around the country have rallied to Garcia’s side. Will this trend continue?

Remember, public school teachers are more than five million in number. The membership in the NEA and AFT combined is more than four million. That is the largest organized bloc of voters in the nation. If we act together, and communicate effectively with parents and students about these issues, we could be a determining factor in many races.

I sent a message to the “Bold Progressives” at the email they provide:  Here is what I wrote to them:

I just reviewed your latest survey, which lays out your progressive agenda.

The only mention of education is debt free college.

As you must surely know, K12 public education is under a frontal assault by corporate interests who are seeking to privatize our schools. This assault is being aided by the Obama administration and Democrats like Andrew Cuomo.

If you, as “bold progressives,” do not include this issue in your agenda, you will not have my support.

I think we need to send this message as clearly as possible to every organization or candidate that asks for a penny of our money, or a moment of our time. If they refuse to even mention our schools now, when they need our support, we will continue to have our schools neglected or undermined once they are elected.

What do you think? How should we get “progressives” to pay attention to education issues? 

Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is National Board certified, and now leads workshops with teachers focused on Project Based Learning. With education at a crossroads, he invites you to join him in a dialogue on education reform and teaching for change and deep learning. For additional information on Cody's work, visit his Web site, Teachers Lead, and read his blog, Living in Dialogue. You can follow him (@AnthonyCody) on Twitter.

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