Sorting out the dueling education coalitions

Richard Kahlenberg sorts out the two big new education coalitions recently formed, and explains why Barack Obama should listen to both.

Published July 11, 2008 11:30PM (EDT)

If you've had enough pure politics for the week, here's some recommended reading for the weekend: a fine article by Richard D. Kahlenberg in The American Prospect analyzing the two big education coalitions recently formed to influence progressive politicians.

The first coalition, led by the self-described "odd couple" of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City, casts the debate in civil-rights terms. Calling itself The Education Equality Project, this faction, which also includes Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., sees recalcitrant teacher unions as a major impediment to poor- and minority-student achievement, and alleges that unions care more about their own members than they do about students...

On the other side of the current debate is a second group, organized by the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute, which recently put out a statement (in full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post) calling for "A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education." The No Child Left Behind Act and other traditional school reforms are failing, the EPI argues, because such programs take a "schools alone" approach and ignore the importance of societal inequality that prevents the narrowing of the achievement gap between affluent whites and low-income minorities.

The argument between these two coalitions, says Kahlenberg, echoes that of the famous Ocean Hills/Brownsville saga in New York City in the 1960s, which led to a 36-day strike by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and a rupture in old alliances formed during the civil rights movement.

Then and now, many minority advocates have felt that teachers' unions are too willing to give up on black and brown kids, and too focused on their own prerogatives, while many union folks think schools are being asked to deal with challenges that society as a whole must undertake.

Lurking in the background of these dueling coalitions is the dispute over No Child Left Behind. While few leaders in either group are very happy with that initiative, the Education Equality Project (which also includes education reform professionals like Andy Rotherham and Kati Haycock) thinks highly focused school-based efforts to raise minority achievement levels are still critical.

The implicit audience for this debate, says Kahlenberg, may well be Barack Obama, whose overall position on education policy if he becomes the next president seems to hang in the balance.

Kahlenberg urges Obama and the members of both coalitions to emulate the example of legendary UFT (and later AFT) leader Albert Shanker, who after leading the NYC strike, became a key figure in bridging the gap beween the warring points of view, while making AFT a national pioneer of far-reaching education policy innovations.

Kahlenberg concludes:

Obama should keep two critical ideas in his head at once, as Shanker did. Teacher unions need to go along with much needed reforms of the schools to rid the system of bad teachers and connect low-income students with the very best educators. And self-styled civil-rights activists like Sharpton need to acknowledge that poverty -- not unions -- is the biggest impediment to low-income and minority achievement. A repeat of the civil-rights/teacher-union wars of the 1960s will only help the right wing and will do nothing to advance the cause of poor and minority kids.


Well, that's it for my week of guest-blogging here in the War Room. It's been exhausting but rewarding, and I want to thank Mark Schone for this opportunity and Alex Koppelman for his example and support. Hope some of you drop by The Democratic Strategist now and then.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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