All kids or just some?

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By AFT President Randi Weingarten

If you had to narrow down the difference between our strategy to reclaim the promise of public education and the one Jeb Bush spoke about this week, it's similar to the difference between building an economy that works for all and an economy that works for just some.

We are fighting for a system that ensures all kids have a shot at success, as opposed to one where, even assuming that opt-out strategies like vouchers work, it will only help a few. We want to invest in public schools, as opposed to disinvesting and privatizing. We want to share responsibility for our children, constantly improving and supporting our public schools so they are places where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to be, and kids are engaged, as opposed to disparaging public education, testing and sanctioning kids, and shaming and blaming teachers. We want to help all kids. But Bush's policies will only help some.

Yesterday, Bush addressed the annual gathering of his Foundation for Excellence in Education. What made headlines, of course, was his unwavering stance in support of the Common Core. (As an aside, it's interesting that he maintains respect for those in his party who disagree with him while continuously disrespecting the professionals working hard to implement these standards in classrooms across the country.)

Buried beneath the lede, though, is Bush's real agenda for education. It has three key pillars: Test. Punish. Privatize.

In Bush's home state of Florida, kids now lose an average of 70 days of instruction due to testing. Is this is what Bush is imagining when he calls for more "rigorous, high-quality assessments"?

He says he wants to break up so-called "monopolies" of public education, forgetting that public education is a public good, a moral imperative and a constitutional mandate in many of this country's states, including Florida.

And he promotes privatization and disinvestment in public schools by calling for what's disguised as "choice." Parents have a right to have great schools for their kids, but their first choice should be great neighborhood public schools. Instead of working for that, Bush advocates for vouchers—an opt-out strategy that he first introduced in Florida that is failing our students. Vouchers have been around for a while, but they have done more to siphon off money from public schools than they have to improve student achievement. In fact, there is no evidence that they improve student achievement. That's why the majority of Americans—63 percent in the latest PDK/Gallup poll—oppose vouchers.

Bush gives the impression that he is personally driven to advocate for high-quality education, but a quick look at his foundation's sponsors tells a different story. One of his biggest supporters, K12 Inc., is a virtual charter school that diverts money from public schools to increase the bottom line for investors. Yet, despite its history, Bush and his foundation have been helping K12 Inc. expand into new states.

Here's the truth: Bush's agenda—just like trickle-down economics—is not intended to work to help all kids. But our strategy to reclaim the promise of public education is intended to help ensure that ladder of opportunity for each and every child.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating. We can reclaim the promise of public education if we invest in strong neighborhood public schools that are safe, collaborative and welcoming environments for students, parents, educators and the broader community. Schools where teachers and school staff are well-prepared and well-supported, have manageable class sizes and time to collaborate. Schools with rigorous standards aligned to an engaging curriculum that focuses on teaching and learning, not on testing, and that includes art and music and civics and the sciences—where all kids' instructional needs are met. Schools or school districts that provide both early childhood education and multiple pathways to graduation. Schools with evaluation systems that are about continuous improvement, not about sorting and firing, that recognize that if someone can't teach, after they have been given the right tools and supports, they shouldn't be in a classroom. And schools with wraparound services to address our children's social, emotional and health needs.

And we can reclaim the promise of public education if we work with the community. Just yesterday, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—a broad coalition of parents, students, teachers, community and faith-based organizations and labor unions—took action in 15 cities across the country to call for sustainable community schools. This model is increasingly important as too many of our kids are getting the bare minimum, especially those who are poor.

As part of AROS' day of action, I had the chance to with others to tour the Community Health Academy of the Heights in New York City. This school, and several other community learning schools the United Federation of Teachers has worked with the New York City school system and parents to create, are the kind of safe, collaborative, welcoming neighborhood public schools that meet the needs of each child and his or her family. The Community Health Academy of the Heights is a vibrant school, a beacon of hope, an anchor for that community. Ninety percent of students there receive free lunch. The school has on-site vision, dental and mental health services. It's open until 9 at night. The library is available for kids and parents. Parents who are English language learners can attend evening classes. Our student tour guide reveled in telling us about his AP Art class. I could go on and on.

This school is creating opportunities for all kids and lifting up the neighborhood in the process. Likewise, we need public education systems that truly help all kids—and public officials who want to help us forge that path. Unfortunately, Jeb Bush's agenda won't get us there.

Nov. 21, 2014