The K-12 Education Speech We Need From Democrats

With the Elementary, Secondary Education Act (ESEA) once again up for reconsideration in Congress, it is time for the Democratic presidential hopefuls to take a stand. Candidates Sanders, O'Malley and Clinton have decided that to differentiate themselves from their Republican rivals, they must make a direct, unmistakable appeal to the interests of working people. Speeches on economic policy, immigration, health care, criminal justice, marriage, abortion, affordable college education and universal preschool all reflect this new strategy. This approach is not a turn to the far left. It is a turn toward the majority. We need a similarly explicit turn in direction with respect to K-12 education policy.

Republicans are clear. The GOP wants to unleash the same unregulated market forces on education that brought us stagnating wages, accelerating inequality and increasing school segregation.

Here is the short stump speech I wish the Democratic candidates would give.

Almost all parents want the same thing for their children -- an education that will prepare them well for life, work and citizenship. They want classrooms in which their children are known and valued. They want a well-rounded education that engages their children to stimulate and expand their interests, critical thinking, and imagination. They want well-prepared teachers who continue to grow in expertise, just like other professionals. They want high-quality neighborhood schools that remain open. They want a say in the governance of schools in their communities.

This is a shared dream that cuts across the racial, religious, socio-economic and geographic differences that too often divide us. The past several decades have moved us away from, not toward this dream. It is time for move forward again. Here is what we need to do.

We need to move away from inequitable local property tax-based school funding that rewards the wealthy and penalizes everyone else. Some may say we cannot afford to do this. I say we cannot afford not to. The human and economic costs of inequity are too high a price to pay. We can afford this investment if we reorient our national priorities and tax structures.

We need to invest in ensuring the quality of the community public schools we already have rather than in escape schemes for individuals such as expanding the number of charter schools or funding vouchers for private schools. We need systemic strategies for all, not escape hatches for the few. We are all diminished when some of our children don't get the highest quality education.

We need federal incentives to promote well-integrated schools. We live in an increasingly diverse country. In fact, diversity is our strength. Putting our heads in the sand divides us, while protecting the privileges of the few. Learning to live and work together is essential for all of our futures. That begins with our children's education.

We need federal support for well-prepared, career educators who have the time and resources to continue to hone their knowledge and expertise. Teaching children and meeting their diverse needs is every bit as complex as practicing medicine or law. We need to treat teachers as professionals with this same level of support and respect.

We need to fund special education so that meeting the needs of some children does not drain local resources away from meeting the needs of all children.

Finally, we need to shift federal resources toward supporting teachers' expertise with assessment and feedback about everyday classwork and away from over-testing students and punishment of their teachers based on flawed data.

These are the bold steps we need to take to achieve our dreams for all of our children. It will not be easy. We cannot do it by competing with one another or treating our schools like businesses competing in the marketplace. We can only achieve the dream as a community.

We can do this together. It's time! If not now, then when?

Arthur H. Camins is the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent Stevens Institute.