Education Reform is a Defining Issue
By Harold Ford, Jr.
President Barack Obama’s recent speech on education reform demonstrates that he is willing to put the full weight of his office behind fixing our failing schools. He called for higher standards, more charter schools, merit pay and eliminating bad teachers. When many of our urban school districts are graduating only 25 percent to 50 percent of their students, he knows that the failed methods and orthodoxies must be jettisoned for what will work.
The brave new world of the 21st century demands much more from our children. Obama’s ambitious and sweeping agenda will help educate and equip them to make the most of the opportunities created by an integrated global economy.
While there is a broad national consensus for education reform in the country, Obama expects that special interests will oppose his reform agenda. Those who do will fight vigilantly to hold onto the failed schools that shame us as a nation.
But their actions will put them against the best interests of our children and on the wrong side of history. Teachers unions and education groups have expressed opposition in the past to ideas like merit pay and charter schools. They are strongly opposed to a successful voucher program in Washington, D.C., which tragically was killed by Senate Democrats in the omnibus spending bill that passed the Senate last week.
On behalf of the nation’s children, Obama is prepared to take on members of his own party and the special interests. Along with turning around the economy, education reform could become the defining issue of his presidency.
Toward that end, the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should consider hosting an education reform summit at the White House. The focus could be on what is working in public schools around the country. This list of “best practices” should be studied, evaluated and shared with principals and teachers — especially in schools that are underperforming.
He could invite education groups, teachers unions, principals, teachers and education leaders who have a proven record of reform and inform them how they could qualify for federal funding for programs that comply with the policy ideas of the Obama administration.
The genius of America is that we have always been able to overcome the challenges we face. Acknowledging our failures and focusing on methods and programs that have succeeded in educating our children are the best place to start.
It is also time we wake the sleeping giant: the parents who have children attending public schools. Alexis de Tocqueville said that people in a democracy “reign supreme.” The parents of public schoolchildren have never fully realized the power they have to bring change to underperforming schools.
With the financial support of the nation’s leading charitable foundations, Parent Teacher Associations around the country could be transformed into a national grass-roots effort to advocate for reform of our schools. Patterned after the missionary zeal and political sophistication of the Children’s Defense Fund, PTAs could be organized in school districts nationwide. Parents — motivated by wanting a world-class education for their children and being highly informed and organized — could bring persistent pressure to members of Congress to adopt an agenda of change to fix our failing schools.
What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream. To pass it on to our children and generations to come, we must restore quality and innovation to all our schools. President Obama knows that our legacy of excellence in education must be redeemed and, with his speech a couple of weeks ago, he has set us on a course to give our children the knowledge and skills they need to compete in this new and changing world.
As Americans, it’s time we think of our obligations to each other. It’s time we take seriously our collective responsibility for future generations. Providing our children — regardless of race, class or religion — with a world-class education is what binds us together and will make our country stronger.
President Obama’s plan to reform our schools will help our children live up to their God-given potential. We don’t have a moment to lose. Congress should enact his education reform proposal this year.
Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.