Cunningham: Democrats Rewrite Education Platform Behind Closed Doors, and Abandon Core Party Values
The Democratic Party has always been a champion for the underprivileged. In the realm of education, the most vulnerable individuals are the students. They cannot vote and have limited influence over their schools. They depend on us to provide them with the tools for success.
This means ensuring that students attend good schools staffed with dedicated educators who set high expectations and take responsibility for achieving results. It means that when students struggle to learn, the adults in their schools don’t blame external factors. Instead, they utilize what they can control, such as time, curriculum, technology, parental involvement, and the trusted relationship between student and teacher.
It also means giving students and their guardians the freedom to choose the best school for their specific needs, regardless of their abilities, background, or identity. Whether a student is gifted, struggling, non-English speaking, economically disadvantaged, LGBT+, athletic, artistic, mentally stable, or vulnerable, they should have access to a quality public school and effective teachers. The priority is always the student’s well-being.
Unfortunately, the recent Democratic platform falls short of fully committing to these principles. Instead, the platform, adopted behind closed doors in Orlando, perpetuates an education system that ignores its flaws and refuses to address them.
For instance, Democrats now oppose "high-stakes standardized tests that unjustly label students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners as failures". This is a valid concern, but what about standardized tests that accurately identify struggling schools and students? The platform does not address this.
Democrats also oppose "using standardized test scores as a basis for withholding funds or closing schools". While there may be valid reasons for opposing these decisions in some cases, are there any circumstances where Democrats would support closing schools? What if those schools show no growth or lose the trust of parents? Would they still remain open? The platform remains silent on these questions.
Furthermore, Democrats are against "using student test scores in evaluating teachers and principals". However, one prominent Democrat, President Barack Obama, believes that test scores, along with other evaluation measures such as classroom observations, examples of student work, and feedback from peers, parents, and students, should inform evaluations.
The platform also criticizes the "accountability policies that merely highlight the achievement gaps already present before students enter school". Yet, there is no mention of accountability policies that address the gaps that emerge during students’ time in school. Shouldn’t we be concerned about that as well?
In addition, the platform officially supports parents who choose to opt their children out of standardized tests without facing any penalties. However, in reality, there are no penalties for opting out despite occasional threats from Washington. Nonetheless, it is concerning to see Democrats embracing an argument for local control that could potentially harm disadvantaged students. Shouldn’t equity for people of color take precedence over local control?
Furthermore, the party only supports "democratically governed excellent neighborhood public schools". This excludes schools in cities without elected school boards and could be distressing news for Democratic Mayors like Bill de Blasio of New York and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago.
To their credit, the Democratic Party does endorse "high-quality public charter schools" as long as they don’t replace or destabilize traditional public schools. However, this condition is quite extreme considering that children have a limited number of educational opportunities, and they may choose charter schools over neighborhood schools. Should we deny them this choice just because charter schools receive less funding due to having fewer students?
Moreover, according to the draft platform, charter schools are "required to enroll and retain a proportional number of students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners compared to neighborhood public schools". But what if the parents of these children do not choose charters? What if these children do not thrive in charter schools? Once again, the platform remains silent on these issues.
The amendments made to the Democratic Platform Committee are a step backward at a time when America cannot afford to stand still, let alone regress. Improving public education for low-income black and Hispanic children should not be a subject of debate or political gamesmanship. It is an economic imperative and a moral obligation.
Every year, millions of young people graduate from public high schools across the nation. However, there are still millions more who don’t even make it that far. The social costs of having undereducated Americans amount to trillions. The moral consequence of condemning young individuals to a second-class existence is immeasurable.
During the initial tenure of the Obama Administration, Peter Cunningham held the position of Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education. With an unwavering allegiance to the Democratic party, he has dedicated his life to public service.
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