Virginia was not about education…but Democrats need to be


So, about Virginia…

The election in Virginia was not about “education”–it was about racism, and white supremacy.

Maybe if establishment Democrats hadn’t tacked hard right on education, starting with Bill Clinton and reaching a crescendo with Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, we wouldn’t have given up the “high road” on public education.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the “need for a new Republican Party,” but I’m going to suggest there’s far more need for a (New) Democratic Party. A party that truly values the middle class, diversity, workers’ rights, and strong public institutions.

Democrats are getting their…tails kicked by a party that stands for nothing; and in that void the GOP has adopted the lowest common denominators of political and social rhetoric.

Expertise? Ridicule it.
Books? Ban ’em.
Truth? “Alternative facts”.
Equality? Only for white people.
Public education? Destroy it and sell the parts to the lowest bidders.

Ignorance is applauded: Let’s Go Brandon!
Wisdom is undermined: Do your own research!
Compassion and inclusivity are ridiculed: Build that wall! And put some razor wire on top and a moat full of gators.

I’m tired of the ignorance and arrogance–a deadly combination. How quickly we’ve forgotten Heather Heyer, and Ukraine, and January 6.

But not so tired I’m ready to give up.

Truth is, there hasn’t been much space between the education platforms of Democrats and Republicans for most of the last couple of decades. Sadly, President Obama’s positions on education policy were essentially a continuation and doubling down of GWB’s approach–“if it moves, test it.”

Regardless of whether those test results could be used to improve instruction (Narrator: “They could not. Because they weren’t returned to schools for several months, often after those students had moved on–and because individual student’s results were not disaggregated, meaning their teachers never knew what test items they got right or wrong–making the tests useless for improving teachers’ practice or children’s learning; which seems…kinda important?”). (Also the Narrator: “And improving teaching or learning was never the point of these standardized tests–the results were always intended to rank and sort schools, punish teachers, and weaken public schooling. Teachers have been telling us this for years.”)

Now, if Democrats truly want to return to being the party that supports public education, here are a few suggestions, offered not so humbly and with more than a little bit of annoyed anger–because those of us in education have been screaming about this stuff for years:

  • Greatly reduce the number of standardized tests children are required to take. Already, in part due to the pandemic, many universities have eliminated these exams for entrance requirements, and guess what? The world did not, in fact, end. As it turns out, the best predictor of college GPA is…high school GPA. Standardized tests do nothing more than improve the bottom lines of multi-national testing corporations, like Pearson. They have nothing to do with children, learning, or schools. Get rid of them–everything will be ok.
  • Eliminate draconian teacher evaluation systems. High school music teachers, for example, should not be rated on the 3rd grade reading and math test scores of children they have never met–and yes, this is happening all across the country. Teachers have no problem being evaluated–in fact, they welcome the opportunity to improve their practice. They would just like to be evaluated on what they actually teach, and to students who are actually in their classes.
  • Support teachers unions.
  • Stop supporting charter schools and school choice initiatives, both of which have nothing to do with improving student learning, and everything to do with destabilizing public education and destroying teaching as a profession.
  • Stop supporting alternative routes to teacher certification (like Teach for America). Teaching is a profession, not an entry level job someone does for a year or two before heading off to law school, or business school–or worse, to Capitol Hill.
  • Ban religious and private school vouchers, and their evil pseudonyms, “Education Freedom Scholarships,” “Tuition Tax Credits,” “Education Savings Accounts,” “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,” and the like. None of these ploys are about “school choice”–they are about defunding public schools, and taking public tax dollars to subsidize religious and private school tuition.
  • Restore music, art, PE, and media/libraries to school curriculums. In too many places, austerity measures have turned schools into barren spaces devoid of beauty and activity. A full and complete education includes much more than math and reading (i.e., the “tested curriculum”), and provides opportunities for children to discover their talents, passions, and identities–and that seems pretty “essential” to me.
  • Improve teachers’ working conditions, including but not limited to increasing teacher pay and benefits (i.e., health care, retirement). Because teachers’ working conditions = children’s learning conditions. Treat your kid’s teachers like they are doing the most important job in the world–because they are.
  • Increase the number of nurses, psychologists, counselors, and mental health professionals in schools. If Covid taught us anything, it’s that more kids are dealing with serious problems and issues than we thought–and that schools are often the first line of defense in terms of helping kids get the help they need. If we are really serious about teaching “the whole child”, it is unacceptable to not provide a full array of human services in schools–and that means offering physical, emotional, and mental health care services, in addition to wholesome, healthy food, and clean, well-maintained buildings and equipment.
  • Restore tenure protections for teachers.
  • Expand teacher leadership opportunities, so experienced teachers are not forced to leave the profession for administrative positions or higher education.
  • Increase training for school board members. Serving on a local school board is one of the most important job in political governance–and “one issue” board members (i.e., CRT) need to understand that these positions come with an enormous amount of responsibility. That includes understanding how schools are funded, governed, and supported.
  • Insure that history and social studies courses include truthful and accurate information about our nation’s past. Whitewashing our history in a vainglorious attempt to “protect” children from the truth of our past protects no one–and plants the seeds for even more tragedy in the future.
  • Make sure that schools are welcoming places for all children, and the adults who support their learning. We need our schools to reflect not just what our communities are, but what we hope they can become. And to do that we need every voice represented–especially those voices that have been silenced and marginalized by the loudest voices in our society.

To repeat: The Virginia election was not about “education”–it was about giving cover to racism and white supremacy.

And strong public schools are one of the best antidotes to this sort of ignorance.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, America’s public schools are the best foundation for our country’s democracy and future…if we can keep them.