A little more than six years ago, a group of public school advocates, political strategists, and progressive-minded educators from around the country met in an informal gathering in Washington, DC, to address the burning question of how to lead a resurgence in progressive values in education policy and politics.
At the time, Republican state governors and legislators were engaged in a withering assault on public schools to strip them of financial resources they needed to educate a population of students increasingly wracked by poverty, homelessness, and the traumas of widespread racism and economic inequity. A Democratic presidential administration led by Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was continuing its campaign to ratchet down more pressure on schools and teachers to conform to practices most educators objected to and increase standardized test scores or face punitive actions. Influential billionaires and private foundations were stoking the coffers of political candidates and think tanks to back charter schools and other market-based forms of competition to public schools. And education policy makers and influential media pundits seemed stuck in a consensus that the nation’s public schools had failed and bad teachers were the problem.
In the political arena, the progressive left had generally left the education battlefield to centrist Democrats and radical Republicans who more often than not agree on how schools should be governed. Public schools had virtually no prominent champions in the progressive faction on Capitol Hill, and progressive advocacy groups uniformly left education policy off their checklists of issues they cared about.
Faced with this bleak landscape, the informal group gathered in the Beltway decided to create the Education Opportunity Network to be a strategy and messaging center to bring education policy back to its progressive roots and urge progressive Democrats to add progressive education policy to their lists of issues they would advocate for.
Beginning with a bold “Education Declaration to Rebuild America,” EON set out a principled agenda based on the progressive ideals of public education as a primary vehicle to provide opportunities for individual advancement, promote social mobility, and share democratic values. The declared goal was to ensure all who envision a more just, progressive, and fair society joined in the fight for the public schools the nation deserves.
Today, after nearly 300 newsletters, more than 360 articles and blogposts, a subscriber base of 60,000 education advocates, nearly a thousand reader comments, thousands of social media followers, and with a media reach that includes prominent national outlets, EON finds itself in a transformed education policy landscape.
Teachers are engaged in massive protest actions to call attention to the lack of resources in schools and the needs for increased funding and relief from the obsession with standardized testing and harsh accountabilities. Grassroots advocacy by students, parents, and community organizers is starting to stymie the steady march of privatization in some communities and bring back democratic governance to school districts that had been deprived of voting rights for years. Prominent news outlets have gone from unfairly bashing classroom teachers to portraying their struggles with empathy. A new slate of Democratic governors has pledged support for traditional public schools and openly expressed skepticism of charter schools and other forms of privatization. And many of the progressive candidates who helped Democrats take back the US House of Representatives this fall vowed to support public schools rather than shutting them down and pledged to put the emphasis back on making neighborhood schools the best they can be rather than funding more alternatives that rarely live up to their promises.
With the holidays approaching, EON will take stock of this transformation and take an extended break to reflect on where this project has been and where it should go from here. Your input in the comment section is welcome, or please leave a comment on the EON Facebook page where today’s newsletter is posted. Here’s wishing you the best of the season and seeing you back here in the New Year.