Shavar Jeffries on Empowering Parents and Strengthening Black Communities
August 19, 2016
The following op-ed by DFER President originally appeared on The Root
Some reform critics seek a policy regime in which their opinions about school options trump the decisions of individual black parents. That is the opposite of black empowerment.
In a piece entitled, “Democratic Political Infighting Over Education Harms Black Families,” which was published on The Root last month, Dr. Andre Perry claimed that our organization, Democrats for Education Reform, not only “attacked” Hillary Clinton—because our position on charter schools differs from that of the former secretary of state—but also that we have broken away from the Democratic Party’s education platform.
Though Perry claims that our organization’s work causes “harm to black families,” his mischaracterization of our position and of our work causes real harm, so we respond here to clarify the record.
Our concerns with the Democratic Party’s education platform, which was revised from its initial balanced draft version and now seeks to take our party away from President Barack Obama’s legacy on education, are rooted in two issues:
- language abandoning important accountability principles broadly supported by President Obama, progressive organizations and civil rights groups, including the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, the Urban League and the National Council of La Raza; and
- language seeking to deny black and brown parents access to high-quality public educational options through public charter schools.
The amended platform language encourages parents to opt out of standardized tests, something black and brown urban families rarely choose to do and overwhelmingly oppose, precisely because they want real data about whether or not their children are learning. At DFER we partnered with the civil rights community and with congressional Democrats to preserve federal testing mandates in national education policy through the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act.
The changes to the Democratic platform abandon where the mainstream of our party is, and that’s precisely what motivated our denunciation of this shift, which would deny families of color critical data about whether their children are meeting college-readiness standards.
Similarly, black and brown families in cities throughout the country are demanding high-quality public charter options, and the platform language seeks to deny those options to families whenever the district decides that such parent-driven decisions disrupt district practices. The disruption in life outcomes that underperforming schools present to the children of low-income families of color would be of no moment—the preferences of districts that have underperformed would prevail.
Contrary to Perry’s claims, the “D” in Democrats for Education Reform is not silent—it’s at the core of everything we do. Challenging draft-platform language, as progressive groups across the spectrum did (including teachers unions that objected to the initial language of the drafting committee), doesn’t make us any less of progressive Democratic education champions. In fact, our critiques were specifically in support of the education policies advanced by President Obama, the sitting two-term Democratic president: One does not become un-Democratic by advocating for the policies of the party’s standard-bearer.
Public communication, moreover, is the essence of participating in our political process, since that is a primary means by which one seeks to persuade others in a democracy. Every element of the Democratic umbrella communicates consistently and publicly about its concerns—whether those concerns involve jobs, the environment, women’s rights, racial equity, health care, the Supreme Court or myriad other topics.
In fact, those who have a more traditional view of education policy have repeatedly expressed their views publicly, and some have criticized our Democratic nominee because they feel she is too much of a reformer. It is a perversion of the values of the Democratic Party to imply that those of us who believe in education reform should unilaterally silence ourselves, particularly since we’re speaking up for our nation’s most vulnerable children, who often don’t have a voice in this debate.
Nor did we attack Clinton in raising concerns about the platform. Critiquing the platform and critiquing Clinton are not one and the same, though we reserve the right to raise substantive concerns when any leader acts in ways that hurt children.
Contrary to Perry’s false claim, our mission is to seek common ground with other Democrats every day, and that’s exactly what we do. We sought and achieved common ground with progressives in the civil rights establishment and throughout the party in protecting the accountability measures of the Every Student Succeeds Act (43 of 46 Democrat senators, in fact, voted in favor of accountability). We sought and achieved common ground with progressives in city halls and state capitals throughout the country in expanding high-quality public charter options, raising graduation standards, improving teacher preparation and development, and ensuring that our schools have the resources they need to be effective.
And we support and partner with Democrats throughout the country in pursuing this agenda, among them many of our party’s most impactful leaders, including our president; numerous U.S. senators; mayors in many of the largest cities in the country; several governors; and myriad state legislators, council people and school board members in all regions of the nation.
Recognizing that a decadeslong status quo in which traditional education policies had miserably failed low-income students and students of color, hundreds of elected Democrats throughout the country support core elements of reform. That number grows every year and will continue to.
While, to be sure, there are legitimate concerns that some reformers seek, missionarylike, to impose an externally hatched education-reform agenda that dispossesses local communities, particularly people of color, that has never been the way we at DFER pursue our work. In fact, our work is specifically focused on supporting community leaders with deep roots in the communities they represent.
Even more, parental choice is, in fact, the opposite of external appropriation of community decision-making. Parental choice is black empowerment embodied. No longer will families of color accede to a policy regime in which local politicians dictate which schools serve their children. In fact, those who support the amended platform language, which undercuts parent choice, are the ones who seek to impose their ideology on black folk by seeking to substitute their choices about school options in place of the decisions of individual black parents.
Creating a policy framework that enables public schools—whether traditional or charter—to better serve our children, families and communities is hard work. We welcome constructive criticism of anything we do because our goal is to serve children well, and we do not claim to have a monopoly on good ideas or good practice. Good criticism makes each of us and our party collectively stronger; character attacks that don’t attempt to address substance only make us weaker.
We look forward to continuing to engage all in an ongoing conversation and implementation of practices that best serve our kids, our educators and, ultimately, our country.