As the summer has heated up, so has the 2016 election cycle. I have spent my summer interning with the Center for American Progress (CAP). After all of the campaign work that I’ve been doing with Wake the Vote, I decided to take a step back and look at another side of the political coin. Think tanks and policy centers have a tremendous sway over lawmakers and new policies, an outsize influence that I wasn’t aware of until I actually experienced it. This summer has provided an onslaught of new learning experiences. I am interning on the K-12 education policy team, and along with my exposure to a host of education policy centered issues I also have gained new perspective on just how interconnected think tanks and legislators are. In an election year typified by polarizing and sensational issues, it can be easy to forget the many substantive and recurring universal policy concerns that the nation faces. Education is the foundation of the “American dream” and is touted as a key to the upward mobility that is so ingrained in the fabric of the American experience. It is one of the few issues that is seen as less contentious and partisan: everyone should be able to agree that building a strong education system that works for all students is a priority, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Even something as fundamental and indubitably necessary as education can become politicized. Conservatives and liberals have long partnered on many issues in education, and they all can agree that students need adequate resources and support in order to have the best possible learning outcomes. Where they tend to disagree is the level of federal involvement there should be in ensuring that all students have equal access to that opportunity. Earlier this summer, at an elite invite-only education conference in San Francisco, the fault lines between liberal and conservative education reformers began to widen. The main divisive issue was the focus on the intersection of education policy and social justice issues. Conservatives feel that liberals have violated the “unspoken rules” of coalition building by calling out conservatives for not addressing the intersection of social justice issues (i.e. race, poverty, immigration status, gender identity, etc.) and education quality. Some of the speakers featured at the meeting had ties to prominent advocacy groups like #BlackLivesMatter and “mainstream” education organizations like TeachForAmerica. A widely publicized blog post published by the Fordham Institute highlighted how conservatives felt that their voices were being pushed out of education reform. The inclusion of more policies that recognized how systemic inequity could be detrimental to the success of low-income students and students of color made the bipartisan bridge tenuous. Liberals were concerned that their partners in reform were refusing to address social justice issues as a means of perpetrating the myth that opportunity is equally accessible to all groups in America and that the unfettered market economy has the unparalleled ability to lift people out of poverty. Conservatives argued that including this rhetoric in policy proposals would damage the legislative plausibility and turn education into yet another partisan issue that will inevitably stall in Congress. One of the many responses to the blog post that was written by Kimberly Quick at the Century Foundation summarized the sentiment that many liberals expressed after the conference:
“One cannot ignore structural racism, anti-blackness, and institutionalized violence in schools and call themselves an education reformer. To assert that the vast disparities in educational and social outcomes between minority children and their white counterparts are not rooted in past and present racially discriminatory policies and pervasive biases is to intentionally misdiagnose the problem. In fact, let’s take it a step further and ask: Should we be comfortable with people teaching and creating policy for black children if they are uncomfortable proclaiming that Black Lives Matter?”
As someone who began the summer already passionate about studying the intersections of these issues and education reform, I was genuinely baffled at how powerful education reformers could consistently and adamantly advocate for policy proposals that omitted any consideration of the way in which identity and economic circumstances can have a tangible impact on learning outcomes. The experience came early in the summer, but it is one that has made a lasting impression. Watching the fallout from the New Schools Venture Fund meeting and its inclusion of #BlackLivesMatter activists has reaffirmed for me just how important it is to fight for education reform that benefits all students. Education policy may not be immune from politicization, and I’ve come to believe that’s okay. By sterilizing “bipartisan” reform efforts of any issue that may prove to be contentious, we risk developing narrow-minded proposals that leave large groups of students behind. Contrary to its title, The No Child Left Behind Act and its descendant, The Every Student Succeeds Act do not provide for the best learning outcomes possible for every student. There is still so much to do to support low-income students and students of color, and I am proud of the many initiatives at CAP that I’ve been able to work on that seek to address these problems. If discussing hot-button issues like racism and transphobia is what it takes to make education a central issue in the upcoming election, then I am all here for it.