The debate train rolled on last night with the #DemDebate in Milwaukee, Wisc., and once again we didn’t hear very much about education. In fact, we may have heard more about Henry Kissinger than we did about education.
We did hear about how Sen. Sanders would make college tuition, at public institutions, free and debt free. Secretary Clinton has a similar plan designed to bring down the out-of-pocket costs of college for students. These are laudable ideas, but might very well be bad federal policy. I get it fully; college costs are too damn high (to paraphrase Jimmy McMillian). This is a significant issue and we need to take a serious look at supply and demand, college accountability, the cost of tuition, fees, and books, the arms race for college endowments, and return on investment of a college degree.
But what about the students who don’t even get to college? What about the students who don’t complete high school? The students who don’t have a full opportunity to complete high school?
Last night was an opportunity to talk about the achievement gap in this country. The debate was held in Wisconsin, which has some of the worst achievement gap issues in the nation. In fact, Wisconsin has the biggest disparity in graduation rates between black and white students, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education. The rate for black students in Wisconsin held steady in 2013-14 at 66 percent, while the graduation rate for white students rose a half-point just under 93 percent.
There are many factors that influence these sorts of dramatic gaps including poverty, unemployment, homelessness, historic racism and segregation, and low expectations, to name a few. Does this mean that the teachers and leaders in Wisconsin don’t care about students of color? No. Does this mean that they don’t care and aren’t trying to shift the culture, provide the right supports and interventions, and reform their system? Absolutely not. I know many educators, including the state chief in Wisconsin, Dr. Tony Evers, and they are focused and committed and they will make the right changes and help all students learn in their state. Many of our states, communities, and districts are struggling with this issue. It is a national issue and I applaud Wisconsin’s Dr. Evers head-on commitment to addressing this issue not only in his state but as President of CCSSO.
Now about last night, the achievement gap issue should have been a discussion point during the debate. Moderators should have pressed the candidates on their plans, on how they would intervene, on what the federal role is in helping states address these systemic issues, and on what the candidates’ vision is for educating all students in our country. The federal role in education, and I admittedly have a traditional take on it, is to provide access and equity. Why wouldn’t we ask candidates about the achievement gap? It seems to be smack dab in the middle of access and equity.
We should collectively demand that we raise the level of debate on education during the 2016 campaign. Our children deserve it. I invite you to engage with us and with our Education Playbook and spread the word if you’d like. Join the conversation using #EdDebate and visit www.educationplaybook.com to learn more.
(Photo credit: Time.com)