Putting Education At The Center Of The 2016 Presidential Campaign

Voter Registration Application for presidential election 2016
Voter Registration Application for presidential election 2016

Last week over two hundred students, faculty, and community residents jammed into the Hofstra library auditorium for a Debate 2016 panel on the future of education in the United States. Life-sized Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump puppets sat by the podium, observing, and hopefully preparing to report back to the candidates.

Panelists included Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, Max Eden, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute, historian Yohuru Williams from Fairfield University, Leo Casey, Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, Kevin Welner, a Colorado University (Boulder) Professor and Director of the National Education Policy Center, John Hildebrand, Newsday Senior Education Writer, and Hofstra professors Alan Singer (aka Reeces Pieces), Andrea Libresco, and Elfreda Blue.

Carol Burris, a former high school principal and a spokesperson for the national opt-out of high stakes testing campaign opened. She sees the current call for "school choice" as the biggest threat to public education in the United States. "Choice" has become a euphemism for charters and vouchers and the privatization of education in the United States. But according to Burris privatization will not work for education. "When a local pizza place closes, it is not such a big deal. But when a charter school fails and closes, hundreds of children are displaced."

Burris argued choice was not a real choice at all. It would rob public schools of their most active parents and make them weaker not stronger. Citing her own experience as a parent, Burris challenged families to keep their children in public schools and to fight to make them better.

Leo Casey presented the point of view of the American Federation of Teachers that has endorsed Hillary Clinton. The teachers' union sees stark consequences for the nation if Hillary Clinton is defeated in the 2016 election. According to Casey, Donald Trump's campaign is a "toxic brew of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, anti-union and tolerant of political violence." He urged those concerned about education and alienated by Trump to back Clinton and not one of the third-party candidates. When a student questioned his dismissal of third parties, Casey responded that Clinton and Trump were the only real choices at this time. One of them was going to get elected President of the United States.

Max Eden described himself as a free enterprise, Tea Party, school choice kind of guy who is not strong on either of the major party candidates. He argued that since 2008 a bi-partisan consensus on education in the United States has broken down and he placed much of the blame on federal overreach and botched implementation, especially excessive use of executive power by President Obama. Eden argued that education should remain a state and local initiative. He predicted that many of the reforms of the past two decades will eventually be jettisoned as states move away from using high-stakes Common Core tests to evaluate children, schools, and teachers.

Eden also described himself as "bullish on charters, choice, and vouchers." They will put money and the control of their children's education into the hands of parents where it belongs. According to Eden the current district-based system is not the only way to provide for public education and it is fundamentally unfair. Families that can afford to move into affluent communities get the best education for their children. Families trapped in poorer communities get worse performing schools for their children.

Kevin Welner concentrated on the historic shift in how the public perceives education, a shift promoted over a period of decades by a 50-state network of free-market advocacy think tanks with considerable funding. As recently as the 1990s, school vouchers were seen as unthinkable in most places, but a sustained and multi-pronged campaign changed the way that the public, the media, and policymakers think and talk about voucher-like policies. This shift and corresponding shifts around other forms of school choice show up in the platforms of both major parties. Welner stressed the importance of social movements and other types of counter-campaigns to bring public thinking and policy-makers toward understanding the importance of opportunity gaps.

John Hildebrand brought his reporter's perspective to the panel detailing the impact of the opt-out campaign by parents and teachers on Long Island. In many local school districts more than half of the eligible students sat out on recent England and Math tests. He attributed the movement's strength to a middle-class respect for teachers and an emerging populism. He also reported that the impact of the opt-out movement can be seen in school board elections and other local political campaigns. In their concluding comments, both Elfeda Blue and Andrea Libresco focused on the importance of public action, through voting, but also through organizing. Libresco also spoke of the potential of public schools to promote racial integration.

Yohuru Williams opened with a slide showing students protesting against standardized tests holding signs reading, "I am more than just a test score." To underscore that education must focus on more than high-stakes testing Williams quoted Thurgood Marshall's oral argument in Cooper v. Aaron (1958) that "Education is not the teaching of the three R's. Education is the teaching of citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens . . ."

William's presentation focused on growing gaps and shrinking opportunities for members of minority groups in the United States as political rights and public education have come under assault. He also cited Martin Luther King Jr. belief that civil rights demands economic justice, something he viewed as increasingly lacking in the United States today. As evidence of the country's failure to address racial inequality, Williams highlighted the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that protected the voting power of minority groups. He also pointed to the recent decision by the NAACP to demand a freeze on the authorization of new charter schools because of concern that they were worsening educational inequality.

Williams is a historian and he excoriated the United States for failing to live up to the promise of the 1954 Brown decision that declared segregated "separate but equal' education to be fundamentally unequal. His talk elicited a response from a Hofstra student deeply concerned that metal detectors in minority schools and the general way students are treated in these schools not only contributes to unequal education but feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

Alan Singer was the last of the speakers. He primarily addressed teachers and explained that their obligation was not to "maintain some abstract form of balance in the classroom, but to help students become critical thinkers who learn to listen to others, evaluate their statements carefully and respectfully, and support conclusions with evidence. If one of the candidates and his or her supporters are shown lacking by this standard, that is the fault of the candidate, not of the teacher." He has "no problem if as part of classroom discussion a teacher shares their personal views on the candidates, even if they support Donald Trump. We have a responsibility as citizens in a democratic society and as teachers to model for students how you reach a conclusion based on evidence. When teachers are afraid to speak, we subvert the meaning of democracy."

Singer ended his presentation as his alter-ego Reeces Pieces, the rapper from Brooklyn, sampling the famous quote by Friedrich Niemöller, a Lutheran minister in Nazi Germany who regretted that he did not speak out forcefully against Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Yo he lied about the weather
Said it was getting better
Gets hotter instead
Time to speak out together.

Wants to bully the world
Keeps threatening war
Elect Voldomort
We know what's in store.

Make America Great
Doesn't say how
Trust me he's got a plan
We just can't allow.

Privatize the schools
Change all the rules
Vouchers and charters
Children will be martyrs.

Says keep out the Muslim
The Mexicans too
How long before
They keep out the Jew.

Silence ain't golden
Balance ain't clean
Speak up, Can't elect
The Donald Trump machine.

That's all for today.
The Reeces Pieces' way.

Follow Alan Singer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReecesPieces8