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Klein, Sharpton roll out education coalition du jour

Yesterday, we noted that Chancellor Klein hadn’t signed on to the “Broader, Bolder” platform. Today, we learn that Klein has a coalition and platform of his own. In Washington, D.C., today, Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton announced the launch of the Education Equality Project, a new campaign to position education as “the civil rights issue of the 21st century” and to challenge politicians and educators to reform schools in a way that puts children’s needs before their own.

Stacked with leaders of ED in 08, an education-focused political action committee, the campaign is clearly intended to influence discussion of education policy in the presidential election. In fact, the project includes members from both political parties and plans to hold forums at both the Democratic and Republican conventions later this summer.

The 15 founding members of the project — more will join shortly, they say — represent a strange set of bedfellows. Klein and two urban superintendents created in his image — Andres Alonso, the former DOE official who now leads the Baltimore schools, and Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee — are on the list. But so is Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone programs perhaps best approximate a vision of the Broader, Bolder approach in action. Arne Duncan, the reformist superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, signed onto both agendas. And some of the African-American leaders who have signed on, including Sharpton and radio personality James Mtume, have in the past expressed skepticism about political leaders’ commitment to helping poor children.

The Education Equality Project’s guiding principles are essentially a summary of the DOE’s recent talking points. They call for increased pay and professional development for teachers and principals, and recourse to fire those who don’t perform well; school choice that includes charter school options; and accountability at every level. In addition, the project’s principles take aim at those who they believe make decisions in order to “make people happy” — as Rhee puts it in the DOE’s press release — instead of based on the best interests of children.

The contrast with Broader, Bolder is obvious. Adherents of the Broader, Bolder movement will say that the Education Equality Project promotes shortsighted solutions that cannot possibly equalize educational opportunity; Education Equality proponents think the Broader, Bolder folks are merely offering excuses for failing schools. And where yesterday’s statement couched a moral argument in the language of accountability-driven reform, the Education Equality Project frames a contemporary reformist agenda in starkly moral terms, alluding repeatedly to the civil rights movement. “It took our country 165 years to conclude that, under our Constitution, separate isn’t equal in education, but, still, 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education, too often our schools fail our highest needs students,” Klein said in the press release. “We need to get serious about giving all children the education they need to succeed. It won’t be easy—the status quo has lots of defenders—but it can be done and it is absolutely essential that we do it.”
With its roster of activist superintendents espousing specific policy remedies that have already gained traction in many districts, including in New York City, the Education Equality Project is poised to influence national politics this year. If it does, several undercurrents of its agenda are worth monitoring. First, the campaign appears to use the past to justify the implicit attack on organized labor contained in its agenda, saying, “As the civil rights movement itself makes clear, such transformations inevitably generate resistance and political conflict.” In addition, the project’s call for “an honest and forthright conversation about the root causes of this national failure” rings hollow given that its leaders aren’t willing to contemplate the possibly that the causes of national educational failure may have their roots outside of the schoolhouse doors. Finally, we should consider the possibility that the two coalitions rolled out this week present approaches that are not mutually exclusive; perhaps there is room for a middle path toward improved academic achievement.

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