It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: Al Sharpton, Newt Gingrich and Mike Bloomberg–all failed presidential hopefuls–arrive at the White House for a joint meeting with President Barack Obama. Upon leaving the Oval Office, they convene a press conference on the White House lawn.
But far from tearing one another to bits or sniping at the man whose job they coveted, these unlikely comrades–a self-appointed civil rights spokesman, a former Republican Speaker of the House and a billionaire New York City mayor–were in total agreement. The topic of the meeting? Schools.
“You have to hold people accountable, and those that perform should be the ones that teach our kids, and those that don’t, unfortunately our children are just too important,” Bloomberg said, referring to his support for teacher merit pay.
Sharpton intoned, “The nation’s future is at stake, our children [are] at stake.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan was there to lend the administration’s support. “There’s a real sense of economic imperative,” he said. “We have to educate our way [to] a better economy.”
Though the media portrayed the meeting as one among “strange bedfellows,” in fact Sharpton, Gingrich and Bloomberg are all on the same side of the education policy debate roiling the Democratic Party. The three are spokesmen for the Education Equality Project (EEP), an advocacy group that has attracted widespread media attention since its June 2008 launch, in large part because of its bipartisan call for policies like merit pay and the expansion of the charter school sector. With the support of rising star Democrats like Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker and Washington, DC, Mayor Adrian Fenty, the EEP and such allied groups as the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform–have openly pushed back against the influence of teachers unions, community groups and teachers colleges over national education policy. Proclaiming themselves “reformers,” they often borrow their strategies from the private sector, and they believe urban public schools must be subjected to more free-market competition.
On the other side of the divide is a group of progressive policy experts and educators who published a manifesto during campaign season called A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. They believe teachers and schools will not be able to eradicate the achievement gap between middle-class white children and everyone else until a wide array of social services are available to poor families. They envision schools as community centers, offering families healthcare, meals and counseling.
Theoretically, there is no reason all these people can’t work together. Some charter schools, after all, have had extraordinary success in raising the achievement of low-income students–even, in some cases, with the cooperation of teachers unions. Many younger teachers appear enthusiastic about performance-based pay, although there is no evidence from the cities that have tried it, like Denver, that it improves student achievement. Yet the single-mindedness–some would say obsessiveness–of the reformers’ focus on these specific policy levers puts off more traditional Democratic education experts and unionists. As they see it, with the vast majority of poor children educated in traditional public schools, education reform must focus on improving the management of the public system and the quality of its services–not just on supporting charter schools. What’s more, social science has long been clear on the fact that poverty and segregation influence students’ academic outcomes at least as much as do teachers and schools.