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Experts discuss progressive education policy in the most significant midterm elections in a generation

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JAISAL NOOR: The fate of the Democrats’ bid to retake control of Congress, and the Republicans’ push to strengthen their hold on power, is already in the hands of the voters. Voters will decide if Democrats can win majorities in either the House or the Senate, giving them a potential check on the power of the Trump administration.

But the battle is not limited to federal races. Thirty-six states are holding governors’ races, and the control of more than half of statehouses are also up for grabs. A January 2018 Pew survey found education the second-most important issue in the year’s election, behind only terrorism. But since then, education policy has fallen from the spotlight, although the issue of school shootings and gun control does remain a key issue for many voters.

In February, West Virginia teachers walked off the job a historic strike that quickly spread to half a dozen states across the country, putting a spotlight on underfunded teachers and classrooms nationwide. The strike resulted in some victories for educators, and spurred others to run for office or join campaigns demanding schools receive adequate funding.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, I may be the only one up here who said quite plainly that I believe that we should tax the 1 percent 1 percent more, and we should use it to increase funding for education.

JAISAL NOOR: The vast majority of public school funding happens at a state level, and many states cut this funding after tax revenue dried up after the 2018 great recession. A decade later, tax revenue is up, but according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, funding for education in 26 states remains lower than pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, educators continue to be paid less than similar professions, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

But the issues facing public education go deeper than funding or teacher pay, and what progressive education policy looks like has received far less attention than it deserves. To learn more, we recently sat down with a panel of experts to ask them about the challenges facing the nation’s schools, and what models for success look like.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Where are we seeing innovative strategies, progressive policies nationally, that either the state of Maryland can look to, Baltimore city can look to? Are there candidates for office during this election cycle who are talking about really progressive policies that would provide access to equity across schools, right, as opposed to simply these bandaid approaches, or plugging holes with our fingers, really rethinking the way schooling is done?

JESSICA SHILLER: I think it’s like, you know, I mean- equity is not really on the on the national conversation at all. In fact, I was just reading, you know, a kind of a summary of Betsey DeVos’ work thus far, and how so-

CHRISTIAN ANDERSON: It’s short reading. [Laughter] And depressing reading.

JESSICA SHILLER: But it’s depressing that people have, advocates really have had to stem the tide on the lack of policy around protections and equity for all kinds of different groups.

CHRISTIAN ANDERSON: So I think we have to keep … My mantra tonight is we have to totally, everything that we’ve been doing, we just need to stop, and we need to kind of start over again because it’s not preparing the students to face the world that’s approaching.

JESSICA SHILLER: But thinking about, you know, who informs education reform policy, it’s never people like us. It’s never teachers, never students. It’s never the people that really encounter the work daily that are informing that policy.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: What should we be doing about the oncoming instantiation of automation, and not being in a place five years from now- our kids are already behind because we’re not having the conversation.

CHRISTIAN ANDERSON: And don’t forget about artificial intelligence. So often when we think about automation, we’re thinking about factory, kind of- those kind of skills, skilled labor jobs. But artificial intelligence has predicted- there’s very few jobs that are not going to get touched by this. So I think it’s a fair question. But this is overly education- scholarly, I guess. But John Dewey said a hundred years ago, right, that you can’t have education to prepare for the future because you don’t know what the future is, right? So what you have to do is you have to have an education that prepares people for life.

JAISAL NOOR: We also talked to independent researcher and consultant Lois Weiner, who argues the conversation around education reform made a dramatic shift in the 2016 election when both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump popularized discussions of economic inequality, albeit to very different ends.

LOIS WEINER: So what we’ve seen this year was this really wonderful upsurge of activism among teachers in the so-called red states pushing back against the defunding of education, and the reforms of the last two decades that have deprofessionalized teaching and have led to test-driven education; that have eliminated all the social- or many of the social supports, and the psychological and emotional responsibilities that teachers feel have to be part of our profession, and have to be part of teaching.

So I think what we’ve seen in the last three months, at least, is that the movement for education reform has been suffocated by the demand that the only thing that counts is electing Democrats to the Congress. Taking back the House, taking back the Senate. And as long as we’ve- as long as we allow that to be our mantra, we don’t grapple with the big issues of economic inequality and social injustice that education reform has to be a part of.

JAISAL NOOR: While praising candidates who support policies like a millionaire’s tax to address inequality, Weiner says a lot more must be done to truly achieve a progressive education system.

LOIS WEINER: A millionaire’s tax is not going to raise all the money that we want. We need a fundamental realignment of social forces in this society. We need a fundamental struggle about who controls what is taught, how it’s taught, and how the schools are funded. And there’s no shirking from that. There’s absolutely no shirking from that. And when we shirk from struggling on that big picture, on those big issues, we get pounded. That’s the problem.

JAISAL NOOR: Go to for this full discussion. From Baltimore, I’m Jaisal Noor.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.