Dear Mr. President-elect Biden,
You have given us all a welcomed message: “I pledge to be a president who does not see red or blue states, but United States…This is the time to heal America. Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end, here and now.“
Nowhere will that message be more critical than in education. In this area, political division and parochial turfism has poisoned public debate and robbed millions of children of their opportunity to learn.
Driven by an entrenched sense of scarcity, we have seen the powerful lobbies representing public education systems position themselves as the victims of much smaller players in education. They have wrongfully labeled charter schools, private schools, and home schools enemies of the common good. Education has become so divisive that many families who choose alternative learning programs for their children fear talking openly about their choices. I hope you live up to your promise of being a president for all Americans, even as national education leaders fail to include families that educate their children outside of the traditional system.
According to our “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 44% of white 4th graders are at or above proficiency in reading. For African American and Hispanic students, that rate is 18% and 23%, respectively. In 2020, of the African American students who took the SAT, less than half met benchmarks in reading, and only 21% did so in math. Research by the UNCF finds that 64% of African American students taking the ACT met zero benchmarks. Only 6% of African American graduates met college readiness benchmarks in all four ACT subjects.
While public education outcomes have given marginalized families much to mourn, smarter and more inclusive education policies and practices could create more significant learning opportunities. One major first step is ending the narrow view of how we educate children, how and what we teach, and where education occurs. For example, instead of stoking ill will between district schools and charters and pitting parents in those schools against each other, we should find every opportunity to develop collaboration between the best of each of these school models. Instead of treating homeschooling parents as if they don’t matter to the national education debate, we should act as if public education includes the entire public. Instead of defining education solely in terms of unionized, industrialized, standardized, and bureaucratized systems, we do better to realize learning can and does occur in many different ways and means.
Let’s not ignore the work done by schools of hope that create space for all children to succeed. Schools like Cristo Rey, a national network of Catholic college preparatory high schools that serve students in urban education deserts; The New York Performance Standards Consortium schools that have pioneered new ways to assess the capacity and promise of students beyond simple metrics; The open-source network of Wildflower Microschools that makes Montessori education possible for larger groups of families; The NYC Autism charter schools started by two mothers with firsthand experience of struggling to find high-quality education for students on the autism spectrum.
One school that might be of particular interest to you is the game-changing Five Keys charter school started in 2003 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. It was the first in the nation to provide quality education inside of a county jail. Five Keys focuses on “restoring communities through education” and works with an extensive network of community-based organizations to provide “high school diplomas, career and technical education, digital literacy, ESL education, cognitive behavioral therapy, and recovery programs.”
In 2015, then California Attorney General Kamala Harris gave Five Keys an award for reducing recidivism and “doing innovative work to educate, employ and keep ex-offenders on track.” Nothing about this school or the families that benefit from it should threaten public education.
The point here is that you are at a fork in the road. You can bend to the will of political groups who are vested in a one-size-fits-all education system, or you can stand up for all families who want and need a variety of educational opportunities. To date, you have mostly put teachers’ unions and their policy agenda first. We’re clear on the political calculation you’re making to prioritize public employees. For instance, in December 2019, you participated in a presidential candidate forum in Pittsburgh organized, facilitated, and funded by national teachers unions, their grantees, and their allies. Every question you answered was crafted by them, asked by one of their plants, and made to suit their purpose.
One organizer wore a t-shirt that said, “F*#@K Charter Schools.”
I hope that’s a message you reject because that t-shirt is an attack on schools with students, parents, and educators who invest deeply in their success.
Sadly, outside of that very same forum you attended, police officers were barring a group of parents who took buses, planes, and trains from places as far away as Memphis, California, and New Jersey. These were African American and Latino parents who do not stand in lockstep with teachers’ unions. Teachers and police officers locked them out of a power room – will you do the same?
Pitting parents against each other only serves the interests of political people. As you begin selecting a new secretary of education, you should think deeply about the process. Make it inclusive of a wide diversity of students, parents, and community experts. Make the process fair, open, and broad. Use it to enfranchise families who have been ignored by previous administrations and education leaders—including those in families like yours who had the resources to access private education.
Keep your promise. Be a leader who heals divisions and brings people together even when the politics make that a challenging goal to achieve.
We’ll be watching, Sir.