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Gingrich and Sharpton – An Odd Couple for Education, But Not the First

al-newtTomorrow, on his continuing education tour, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be joined in Philadelphia by two gentlemen who because of their obvious differences on many levels are called the Odd Couple of education.  I applaud strange bedfellows – when they make things happen for kids. With this one, I’m not so sure.

The first real Odd Couples of education led some of the nation’s most fundamental shifts in education, shifts that had once been considered radical.  Looking back through the past sixteen years, it’s clear that while education reform has changed dramatically, broad, mainstream support for bold changes in education existed then, just as they do now.  It was just much less hip to say so.

Then, policymakers who led the fight for charter schools, merit pay (as it was called in those days), vouchers and the like were accused of being part of the vast right wing conspiracy and generally anti-public education, despite the fact that such nomenclature didn’t fit then, just as it does not now. CER’s first work celebrated legislators like Pennsylvania Democrat Dwight Evans, who joined hands with Republican Tom Ridge to pass that state’s charter bill.  Miami Urban League head T. Willard Fair teamed up with Governor Jeb Bush to bring vouchers to Florida, following in the steps of Representative Polly Williams, a former Black Panther, in league with conservative Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.

These were the first, real Odd Couples of the modern education reform movement.  They were bold, tenacious, and courageous to cross party lines, incur the wrath of unions together and suffer all sorts of education establishment slurs.

Back then, school reformers were on a roll, enacting 22 of the 24 strongest charter laws in the country in just six years between 1992 and 1998. This was after numerous governors’ summits and pre-NCLB.  Only one more strong law would get enacted subsequently and several very mediocre charter laws have dotted the landscape since, with attempts to strengthen them marginal at best and modest by comparison, thinking small strides are better than big ones.

Turns out that’s not the case with anything we need to do to fix schools. So, on the eve of newest Odd Couple’s road show aiming to pick up where the old one’s left off, it’s time to do some honest recapping of history, in the hopes that what was good gets copied, and that lessons in futility do not.

With the theme of making education more competitive in the future, and a plea to put “aside partisanship and ideology,” Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton will flank Secretary Duncan at the first of several city tours.  Will they allow a real discussion of that city’s charter schools, the vast majority of which data show are succeeding beyond conventional public school achievement?

Wanna talk about closing the gap even more? How about doing something about that city’s union and performance pay?  Think bad schools should be closed? Why not consider giving the poorest children the same access to higher performing private schools that previous odd couples endorsed?

But I’m not hopeful.  Not only did Sharpton bring a phalanx of speakers to the May Education Equality Day rally that called charters divisive and argued for more money as the answer to our education woes, he also tried his best to keep former DC City Councilman Kevin Chavous off the dais because of his crusade for choice programs like the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.  Chavous and President George Bush were yet another odd couple who got the unthinkable done by being courageous and bold.

Gingrich, on the other hand, has never minced words about his distaste for the teachers unions and understands that money is not the answer.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan is somewhere in the middle, probably leaning a bit towards Gingrich if one had to draw a solid line.

So, while they may think they are doing the public a service by bringing Sharpton around with them, they may actually be giving Sharpton cover to look and sound like a reformer, when he’s anything but.  A serious education reform forum would also have far more reformers on the program, not just administrators who pay lip service. Indeed, one highly successful charter leader was almost nixed for potentially being disruptive. That must be what you call a school where student achievement among poor students of color mirrors that of the wealthy suburbs.

We hope the cast tomorrow – and at subsequent Duncan road shows – have not been carefully chosen to avoid “disruption.”  I wonder how any conversation about an industry that leaves 30% of our kids every year without a high school diploma could or should be harmonious.

Meanwhile, here’s to Odd Couples that truly dare to challenge the status quo – and remain productively employed and engaged despite it.

Comments

  1. Carolyn Carruth says:

    The costs, the failure and the institution’s powerful political will are factors totally miss-read and least understood by America’s taxpayers, the only element capable of challenging the sheer numbers of family and friends of public school employees who never miss a vote to self perpetuate, to self protect, to oppose accountability at all local, state and federal levels.
    Always demanding ever more money, shorter student contact hrs. lower standards, with focus of blame on social issues as the scape coat that covers unchecked pervasive mediocrity. It’s Taxpayers who unwittingly allow all to be held hostage by union driven salary scales and termination costs while students fail basic expectancies. Until Elected officials at all levels tell the truth of real costs against real failure and do all to support choice in all venues America will continue to loose against those countries who value education. Only similar Tea Party efforts can possibly overpower the political will of public educators. Until knowledge that despite some 700 billion taxpayers commitment annually by taxpayers to educate some 60 million children is matched against the failure factors of this institution and its ultimate social cost against a nation, taxpayers have no choice but to continue past death to support this failed institution and why significant change without choice is not possible.

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