Today Arne Duncan announced that he’s stepping down as U.S. Secretary of Education in December of this year. His replacement, John E. King, better have more game than Duncan displayed in pick-up basketball with the president. King has to help Democrats get elected into office in the 2016 elections.
But can King make education reform more progressive during the ten months that he has the position?
When staunch Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal can claim the initiatives that Duncan praises, you know you have more than a branding problem. At his presidential announcement, Jindal said, “We reformed education with nearly 100 percent charter schools in New Orleans and now we have statewide school choice because every child deserves an equal opportunity for a great education.”
Who is the “we” to which Jindal refers?
Louisiana Dems, pretend this is just a rhetorical question.
Let’s save the empty rhetoric of “it’s all about the kids” to sheepishly recuse obligations to the Democratic Party. In politics, you must differentiate what you have delivered for your party in exchange for votes, resources and better outcomes. Louisiana’s Republican party grew stronger as reform flourished in one of its most Democratic cites.
Not only can Jindal take ownership of the perceived success of breaking up the centralized school board and replacing it with charter schools, he can apparently turn his back on what is perceived to be Democratic initiatives, which are endorsed or supported by Duncan, when it’s politically expedient. In 2010 Jindal adopted Common Core state standards, which put him in line with other presidential hopefuls like Jeb Bush. Four years later, Jindal retreated from Common Core apparently to increase his presidential profile.
In addition, the Democrats in Louisiana can’t hope to run for the state’s highest office on a reform platform without getting pushback from teachers—remember those people? Just like the Republicans have a Tea Party problem, Democrats have education reformers who aren’t very progressive.
Let’s be clear: All change is not progressive. Black and brown people need education reform. Us black folk have never been in a position where we’ve wanted status quo. Black people have been and inherently are reformers. But if reform doesn’t directly empower the people who need it most, if it doesn’t help poor folk mobilize to combat corporate greed or help the disenfranchised control their own destinies—it isn’t progressive. There isn’t a problem with the reforms themselves. Duncan trusted people who aren’t really progressives.
Take labor unions as an example. I, for one, want labor unions to adjust along with students’ needs. However, to actively attempt to dismantle unions is to miss why black and brown people need them. Black and brown people are under assault in all aspects of our lives. Black teachers need protection just like black children. And to miss challenging work conditions and pay disparities, only to focus on underachievement, is to embrace a cold individualism that is faithfully conservative.
With the American Federation of Teachers already going all in with an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton and with the rising popularity of Bernie Sanders, presidential candidates should want the White House to modulate the initiatives that riled teacher and empowered Republicans. But instead of downplaying reform, John King should make real attempts highlight progressive reformers.
Over the last seven years, it’s been confirmed that there are limits to federal policy in education. States and local districts can easily mitigate the intentions of the feds. Regardless of U.S. presidential politics or who the next secretary of education is, black and brown people shouldn’t wait to see how the chips fall politically or hope for progressives to take a stand. People of color along with the poor must determine an education agenda that better reflects the social, political and economic realities we face.
When public school families in urban districts exercise the power they actually possess and when black and brown people impose what it means to be a progressive, then we will see Democratic Party differentiate itself.
Dr. Andre Perry is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, which consisted of four charter schools in New Orleans. Perry’s views have been featured on NBC, National Public Radio, Al Jazeera America, GOOD Magazine, TheGriot.com, The New Republic and CNN. In 2011, UNO Press released his book, The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.