During this period of right-wing ascendance, it is easy to succumb to the depressing reality of Trump’s America and not see the opportunities for change. In several American cities and states, liberal and progressive politicians occupy positions of leadership. The opportunities created by their victories make it necessary to see beyond resistance to Trump and Trumpism, and call upon us to conceive of projects and policies that can solve or bring relief to social and economic problems at the local and state level. In states like Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, California, Hawaii, and Connecticut, and major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, we have a chance to begin enacting a progressive agenda.
This is particularly the case in education. Although educational issues are notoriously complex and do not lend themselves to quick fixes, in places where progressive leaders hold power, we must develop an agenda that can produce tangible benefits. The teachers strikes that have occurred in red states (Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky) and blue cities (Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, and Sacramento) have shown that there is a deep well of popular support for teachers that can be tapped when their demands for change not only benefit themselves, but the children they serve.
However, unlike many other issues, the politics of education don’t fit easily into a right-left binary. After all, the reforms carried out by the Obama administration bore a striking resemblance to those carried out under George W. Bush. Both administrations embraced charter schools, high-stakes testing, and school closures in poor communities. With support from major foundations (Walmart and Gates), philanthropists (Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, and Mike Bloomberg), and advocacy groups (Democrats for Education Reform, the Leadership Council for Civil Rights, and the Education Trust), the reform agenda has at times been embraced by both parties.
The teachers strikes and the anti-testing “opt-out” movement have put Democratic reformers on the defensive. Now with Trump and his Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, promoting a more blatant privatization agenda, Democrats must demonstrate that they not only support public education but can also solve some of the critical problems facing schools across the country. This is a tall order that will require a new approach. For almost 20 years, reformers have had their chance to demonstrate what their vision for education could achieve, and they’ve failed to deliver the improvement they promised. Now, many of them find themselves bereft of ideas and unsure of how to distinguish themselves from Trump’s right-wing education agenda.
The failures of the reformers and the Trump administration’s lack of interest in any effort to revitalize public education have created an opening for progressives. Most people recognize that public schools are still the most accessible and democratic institutions in American society. Furthermore, even as issues like immigration, health care, and climate change dominate the news, interest in education continues to rank high among voters. For this reason, progressives must be prepared to lead efforts to promote change through education with well-developed positions on a variety of educational issues.
To do this, progressives must adopt an agenda that is pragmatic and rooted in strategies that have proven effective elsewhere. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was on such a path when he embraced and successfully implemented preschool for all, effectively expanding access to quality early-childhood education for more children than any jurisdiction in US history. By focusing on efforts to expand educational opportunity, support teachers, and enact strategies that advance the equitable treatment of children, progressives can demonstrate that positive change in education is possible.
Here are seven ideas that could be part of such an agenda:
1. Fully Fund Special Education
When the Individuals With Disabilities Act was adopted in 1975, Congress pledged to pay up to 40 percent of the cost for special-education services. But since 2010, it has only contributed about 16 percent to the costs of educating children with disabilities. With states unwilling and unable to make up for the shortfall, local districts have been forced to find ways to adequately fund special education. The results have been disappointing, and throughout the country, special-education programs and services remain woefully underfunded. As the rapid reaction to stop DeVos’s attempt to defund the Special Olympics showed, support for special education is widespread and cuts across the political divide. Embracing the law and increasing funding for special education is an issue which, like universal preschool, has broad appeal.
2. From Pressure to Capacity Building
Several Democratic and Republican leaders have carried out efforts to shut down or takeover schools labelled as failing. Most of these have been schools that serve poor black and Latino students. They have also supported firing “bad” teachers and principals. The alternative to mass firings, threats, or shutting down struggling schools is capacity building. Such an approach involves the state or district assessing the factors that have contributed to a school’s troubles and then devising a plan with school staff to make sure that it has the personnel, training, and resources required to meet student needs. This strategy been successful in Toronto, arguably the highest-performing urban school district in North America. When a school in Toronto is identified as struggling by the Ontario Ministry of Education, a strategy is devised to address the causes and build capacity in areas of weakness.
3. Focusing on the Whole Child
There is a growing movement to acknowledge that a child’s physical health and psychological well-being have an impact on their academic performance and therefore cannot be neglected. While this is not a new idea, under No Child Left Behind the social needs of poor children were largely ignored as schools were pressured to focus narrowly on achievement as measured by standardized-test performance. A growing number of schools have embraced the community-school model championed by organizations like the Children’s Aid Society and the Harlem Children’s Zone, which bring social services into schools. In a nation where over half of the nation’s children in public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the need for such an approach is clear.
4. From Using Assessment as a Weapon to Using it as a Tool
One of the most debated aspects of No Child Left Behind was its requirement for children to be tested on a regular basis (third, fifth, and eighth grades in math and literacy). As result, most states now require students to be assessed at the end of each year. While standardized testing has become controversial, most educators recognize the value of using assessment to diagnose learning needs and to monitor how much a child has learned over time. If tests are used in this way, assessment can serve as a useful tool to guide interventions and educational supports for children.
5. From Parents as Consumers to Parents as Partners
A key tenet of school choice, as it has been implemented in many communities throughout the United States, is the principle that parents should be able to choose which school their child attends. While the idea of treating parents as consumers in an open education marketplace appeals to many parents who are dissatisfied with their neighborhood schools, in reality parental choice is always limited by access to transportation, reliable information (in translation when necessary), and the willingness of good schools to serve disadvantaged children. The alternative to treating parents as consumers is to treat them as partners in the educational process. When schools serving low-income children engage parents as partners based on trust, respect, and empathy and train teachers in how to work with them, parents are more likely to reinforce learning at home, and children are more likely to benefit from their cooperation.
6. From Punitive to Preventive School Discipline
As a result of the mass shootings that have occurred in several schools, many states have adopted zero-tolerance school-discipline policies to address school safety. This has led schools to invest in armed security guards, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors, as opposed to counselors and social workers. More recently, the Department of Education has called for arming teachers. A progressive policy for safety and discipline must focus on preventive strategies that provide support to students struggling with mental-health issues, and the development of healthy school cultures that support children and address the underlying issues that affect behavior (poverty, trauma, and academic difficulties).
7. From Top-Down to Mutual Accountability
Under the standards-and-accountability approach to reform, those with the most power, such as governors and state legislatures, have had the least accountability for school performance, while students, teachers, and principals have been subjected to sanctions and threats. There is not a single state in the country that has established learning standards that it holds itself accountable for enforcing. The alternative to top-down accountability is a system based on mutual accountability in which the responsibilities of all stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, administrators, legislators, and governors—are clearly laid out. Since each stakeholder plays a role in the educational process, spelling out what they must do to achieve desired results is essential.
While clear policies are critical, it is also important for a progressive education agenda to be based upon a careful reading of the politics and sentiments of the local community. Schools always reflect the character (particularly with respect to race, class, and language) of the communities where they are located. As such, organizers, activists, and aspiring politicians who hope to promote a progressive political agenda must be in dialogue with the parents, educators, and students, and the agenda they adopt must reflect their aspirations in the broadest sense.
Ultimately, advancing a progressive agenda during the Trump era must be based on organizing and educating. The progressive base must be mobilized around ideas that give them something to vote for. We must also engage some of the people who were either so alienated that they did not vote in 2016 or so misguided and confused that they voted for Trump. In 2020, Trump and the rightward drift in American politics, especially among working-class white Americans, will not be reversed through resistance alone. Resistance is necessary, especially when the rights of the most vulnerable are violated, but organizing for what we want—universal access to health care, decent wages, a clean environment, and well-funded and high-quality public schools—is even more important.
In the long term, we must also not forget that the future of America will be determined not only by what happens in Washington but by what happens to our children in our nation’s schools. For that reason, we must prioritize developing and advocating for a progressive education agenda in America.