What Will it Take for the Candidates to Talk About Public Education?

Nikhil Goyal, author of Schools on Trial, compares Sanders and Clinton education platforms and responds to the calls of the leading Republican candidates to abolish the Department of Education

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: The first national union to endorse Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was the American Federation of Teachers. They were followed a short time after by the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. But besides that there hasn’t been much news around public education in this election cycle. So where do the major Democratic candidates stand on these important issues?

Now joining us to discuss this is Nikhil Goyal. He’s the author of the new book Schools On Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. He lives in New York. Thanks so much for joining us.

NIKHIL GOYAL: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: So Nikhil, as I was, you know, talking about in the intro, there just hasn’t been much talk about public education in this election cycle. There’s been two moments on the Democratic side that stick out to me. Clinton, during a town hall in Iowa, said she’s going to close under-performing schools, and there was speculation about how many schools that might be. Is that [inaud.] all the public schools in the country? And then also on the other side, Sanders, he said that he wants to radically change the funding formula around public education. Kind of get tax, you know, property taxes out of the formula.

So you know, for me, I’ve followed this pretty closely. I care about public education. That’s all I’ve heard. Tell us how Clinton and Sanders kind of compare on the broader issues, and your thoughts to these first two examples, as well.

GOYAL: Yeah. No, it’s–you’re right, there has been very, very little discussion about K-12 education in this presidential cycle, both on the Republican as well as on the Democratic side. And I, I mean, Sanders has endorsed free public higher education, but on the K-12 side there has been very little talk, especially on his side.

I mean, Clinton has been somebody who has endorsed many of the, the corporate education reforms throughout her career, and that’s why it was very surprising to see her get the endorsement of the NEA and the AFT. She’s somebody who voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. She’s been very supportive of charter schools, and pay for performance. She wants more, a longer school year. These are many examples that people in public education, who are advocating for public education, would oppose.

Meanwhile, Sanders is actually somebody quite interesting. He, back in the 1960s and ’70s, he was actually arguing for a more progressive form of education, and critiqued American schools for crushing children’s creativity and love of learning. And he, he actually voted against the No Child Left Behind Act. And also, in the recent Every Student Succeeds Act that was passed under President Obama just in December, he oversaw and fought for a portfolio and performance-based assessment system for states, so moving away from standardized tests. It’s quite a–I’m a little bit surprised he hasn’t talked about this very much, because I think a lot of people in public education would support most of what he’s saying.

And I mean, on the two issues you raised, I think it’s very, very important, especially–I really appreciate that Sanders was talking about school funding, because once you move away from the property tax model and you push for equitable and equal and accessible funding of public education, that changes the entire game. And I, I’m very happy he realizes that.

But meanwhile for Clinton, I mean, that is obviously something I’m not surprised–I think she said she wanted to close every, all the below-average schools. And then she’s somebody who just, I think, recently said at a town hall that she wants to have a longer school year, more structured learning environment. So it is very troubling, much of her record, and the things she’d been saying around education.

NOOR: And so you talked about kind of being surprised that these, the major unions, the AFT and the NEA, would support Clinton. But haven’t they sort of been going along with the corporate education reform, which we will get into? Haven’t they been going along with it? Or not mobilizing at the, you know, at the very least not mobilizing their members against it. We’re talking about No Child Left Behind, we’re talking about the expansion of charter schools. I mean, the UFT, the local chapter in New York, they have their own charter schools in New York City.

GOYAL: Yeah, no, I think the AFT and NEA, I mean, I appreciate much of the work they do, have effectively capitulated to pro-corporate and business interests. I mean, that’s in essence what has happened. They have fought in some ways against some of the reforms made by President Obama in the last couple years, but they have not done nearly enough, and they have not mobilized teachers against some of these changes. And I think Randi Weingarten, for example, and I appreciate Randi, I think she’s a friend of mine, I consider her a friend. I mean, she’s somebody who has been a longtime ally of Hillary Clinton.

So yeah, it wasn’t, I think, I understand why she would support somebody like Hillary Clinton. At the same time, if you want to talk about, at a time of massive corporate education reform in a time of slashing of school budgets and an attack on public education, you need to mobilize your members and effectively and vigorously critique the kind of system that we have come about today. And I don’t think AFT and NEA have done nearly enough.

NOOR: So the, the national laws we’ve been talking about, No Child Left Behind and then Race To The Top, they sort of made this possible. They made the increasing of charter schools, the increasing of standardized testing possible through the Department of Education through federal law. Now the three Republican frontrunners, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, have all discussed abolishing the Department of Education. So would this sort of be a good idea?

GOYAL: I’m all in favor of reducing the federal role over public education. I think there has been way too much power given to the Department of Education in terms of, for example, the Race To The Top program, which basically threatened states to adopt former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan-backed policies. But at the same time, I’m not in favor of abolishing the Department of Education. I think it’s a wrong move.

I think it needs to be, the powers need to be more strongly regulated and constrained, but I think there is a place in our society for the Department of Education, especially when it comes to things, for example, like civil rights or school discipline. I mean, the Obama administration, fortunately, has responded to activists’ and community members’ calls to move away from zero tolerance discipline policies, and they have supported, they’ve called for schools to move away from those ruthless discipline initiatives.

So there is some–I mean, I think the DOE, while I criticize it tremendously, I think has done a few, some, a few good things in the past couple years. And I don’t support abolishing it in any form.

NOOR: Okay. Well, Nikhil Goyal, this wraps up part one of our conversation. We’re going to talk more about your book, Schools on Trial, in the upcoming segment. Stay tuned.