In the 2008 Presidential Election race, education played a prominent role in the platforms of candidates from both sides of the aisle.  During the primary season, Democratic candidates called for a major overhaul of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act while Republican candidates emphasized the importance of school choice and the need for more voucher programs.   Even after Barack Obama and John McCain had been chosen as the two presidential candidates, education played a prominent role in each party’s platform positions and in the debates between the two candidates.   In the final presidential debate in October of 2008, now President Obama stated that education “has more to do with our economic future than anything,” while Senator John McCain boldly proclaimed that education is the “civil rights issue of the twenty-first century.”

Fast forward to 2012 and the place of education in the election dialogue has been radically transformed.  Instead of discourse filled with discussion of numerous and diverse policy considerations, the candidates on both sides of the aisle have almost exclusively focused their messages on the economy and health care reform.  With these two issues standing at the forefront of every American’s mind, Republicans and Democrats have had the difficult task of deciding whether to address education reform at all, and if so, figuring out a way to relate education to the problems pertaining to the economy.

Education reform seems to have taken a very minor role in the Republican presidential campaign platforms.  An uncharacteristic strategy move in light of the Republican party’s usual enthusiasm for education reform, the Republican candidates appear to be framing education reform programs and the Department of Education in terms of their ability to spend more federal tax dollars and their impact on the expanding role of the federal government.  In a recent presidential debate in Arizona, Ron Paul reiterated his position that the Department of Education should be eliminated, Mitt Romney criticized Rick Santorum for having voted for “No Child Left Behind”, and Rick Santorum subsequently apologized for his vote because of the “huge problem” that “No Child Left Behind” has created with “all the money that was put out there” for the program.   While this strategy may certainly change following the selection of the party’s official candidate for the Republican bid, as of now, it appears that education may play only a small part in the party’s campaign platform.

While Democratic President Barack Obama has not spent much time on the campaign trail at this point in the election season, his recent speeches and actions have suggested that education reform could play a more prominent role in his developing campaign platform.   For example, during his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama spent several minutes discussing his concerns about the state of education in the United States.  While he did reference the economy in his opening to this portion of his speech when he said, “to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow, our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier,” Obama focused the substance of his speech on his hope that student achievement will improve in coming years.  He suggested that measures need to be taken to ensure that schools retain good teachers, that every student graduates from high school, and that every student is given the financial backing to be able to attend a four-year higher education institution.  Additionally, President Obama also recently pardoned ten states from the restrictions of “No Child Left Behind.”  Obama’s aides have suggested this move reflects the President’s hope that states will stay on track in trying to improve student outcomes while not being penalized too heavily for not yet having reached certain goals.

While there appear to be some differences in the Democrat and Republican strategies regarding the discussion of education reform, it is certainly too early to tell whether these strategies will be maintained throughout the rest of the election season.  With the economy appearing to show signs of improvement and growth, both parties may feel more comfortable addressing this issue more intensely.  Or, if President Obama discusses education reform more frequently, Republicans may feel compelled to highlight education reform more prominently in their platforms.

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The key idea from President Obama’s speech was not what he said, but what he did. He stopped waiting around and took matters into his own hands.

He said that the goals of NCLB were right, but the direction taken to achieve those goals were wrong. He said that he would start granting certain states waivers from No Child Left Behind and hinted at bigger reform saying that it should reflect many of the principles behind Race to the Top.

Whether or not you agree with his policies, his actions are something that each one of us can learn from. One month into law school and I’ve already seen many examples of how I can pitch in.

At Georgetown Law School, there are numerous students and programs that are are examples of this. One of these programs is called Everybody Wins. Every week in Everybody Wins, law students read to local school kids to get them excited about learning. Another is the Street Law Program where law students visit high schools and teach students about legal issues relevant to them and expand their vision for the future.

As Obama said in his speech, “We can’t just blame teachers and schools.” We all need to do better.

To continue the discussion, send Danny a Tweet at @DannymJohnson

The #1 or #2 concern listed each year by voters in the state of Utah is Education, but you would never know this by looking at the legislative docket each session. Kory Holdaway, head of Government Relations for the Utah Education Association attributes much of this to the fact that zero of the over 100 state legislaters have a background in education.

This was maybe the topic that mustered the most debate during among teachers during the first day of the annual Huntsman Seminar held in Utah at the Hinckley Institute of Politics. The primary focus of the seminar is to improve the quality of civic education in Utah schools and every year it brings together over 30 high school teachers to listen to political and civic leaders from across the nation and state to discuss current political issues, processes and new developments in civics education.

Going back to teacher representation in the legislature, Holdaway cited a lack of structural lobbying efforts from educators as one of the principal culprits for this deficiency. The real estate industry for example, has 35 state legislatures, and to the surprise of no one, also has a very coordinated and effective lobby.

Don’t be turned off by the term lobby however, the structural lobbying referred to by myself and Holdaway is much different than issue based and corporate lobbying that requires big dollars signs has such a negative stigma attached to it.

Issue based lobbying is when consituencies rally around certain issues, as teachers did very succesfully in 2007 when school vouchers were up for a vote, structural lobbying though is different. It involves creating a grass roots movement to first get delegates in local caucases and conventions that will eventually lead greater representation in local and state politics.

This is what realtors and others in the real estate industry industry did 10-15 years ago and they are seeing their fruits today with their disportiontely high representation in the state’s Legislature.

With so much national attention currently focused on education, it is prime time for those directly inolved with students on an everday basis to band together at a grassroots level in order to ensure the success of any new legislation. As Congressman Bishop and former teacher and school administrator stated at the seminar that teachers have to buy in and believe in the policy for anything to happen on local levels and in the classroom.

Thus, I believe that the success and implementation of any reform or policy is very much a function of the involvement of educators in the process of drafting legislation that will have a meaningful impact on students.

Post written by Danny Johnson. He can be reached on Twitter at @DannymJohnson

Danny Johnson is an incoming 1L at Georgetown Law School and the newest contributor to Beyond the Classroom. Over the course of the next year, he will be chronicling his experience as a first year law student.

In March, I attended the Georgetown Law School Admitted Students Open House to see if everything I had read and heard about the school was true. It suffices to say that I was impressed, and by the end of the visit, I was drinking the Kool-Aid, had joined the Facebook fan page and decided to name my firstborn after Dean of Admissions Andrew Cornblatt (those plans have since changed).

Aside from its great reputation, influential faculty and innovative curriculum, I learned first hand of the unique and inherent benefits afforded to GULC as a place where influencers and thought leaders descend due its location in the heart of Capital Hill.

I had planned to leave DC and return to Utah on Sunday, immediately following the open house, but when I heard that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner would be speaking on the campus as part of the Educating For Democracy in a Digital World Conference that Wednesday, I moved my flight and stayed an extra few days.

Aside from meeting the Justice and the Secretary, I met two other people at the event that I was just as excited about interacting with. Those two men were Street Law founder and former GULC professor, Jason Newman, and Richard Roe, the current director of the Street Law Clinic.

Georgetown Law is heralded for its clinical programs and the Street Law Clinic is one of the reasons why. It provides 2nd and 3rd year law students the oppurtunity to teach high school kids in DC about civics and the law and is the one clinic at Georgetown that I am most interested in getting involved with.

I have long had a passion for working with young people that started while teaching under privileged youth in the favelas of Sao Paulo, Brazil and this continued to develop while coaching at numerous basketball camps over the past few years. Thus, when I initially read about the Street Law Clinic, I recognized this as something that I could become passionate about.

Both Professor Newman and Professor Roe were very cordial and engaging. I was very impressed when Professor Roe  told me all about the Thurgood Marshall Academy that he helped found in 2001. The Academy is a charter school for underserved students in DC and recently boasted a 100% college acceptance rate. Though our conversation got cut short, Professor Roe asked that I email him to continue the dialog and he has been very responsive and helpful in answering my questions and providing guidance.

Though I was already riding shotgun on the Georgetown law bandwagon after the open house, this experience sealed my fate as a future Hoya.

To continue the conversation, leave a comment or send Danny a Tweet at @DannymJohnson.

I want to point everyone to this wonderful blog post by Thomas Sugrue (my former thesis advisor and an amazing UPenn history professor) who says everything I believe and more.

One part of the article is specifically worth highlighting. Sugrue writes: “One fundamental problem (and there are many more that I can’t list here) with the Obama administration’s policies is that they take for granted that segregation by race and class is unchangeable. They take for granted that disadvantaged students will remain concentrated together. And they accept as a given the reality of ghettos of wealth in privileged school districts.”

Money is being thrown around, and new ideas(merit pay) are being championed, but we still continue to expect young minority students to rise above their surroundings.  It is wonderful that there are some charters schools which help minority students fight against the stacked deck that is our educational system. But why can’t we change the conversation entirely and think of new ways to integrate our student bodies – much like the small programs in Boston (METCO) and St. Louis?

I’ve been book-marking news articles left and right. While I am a little behind the ball in timeliness this specific article from the LA Times raises a great deal of new questions about the power of law in the domain of education.

A L.A. Superior Court ruled that the L.A. Unified School District cannot lay off teachers at three of the city’s worst-performing middle schools for budgetary reasons. According to the article between half and 3/4 of the teachers were laid off last year. The students have currently been “taught” by rotating substitute teachers.  There were much fewer layoffs at more affluent schools. This is one of the many problems with a system based on seniority.  New York City will soon be dealing with a similar problem, if they layoff 8,000 teachers based on seniority.  The students in the South Bronx will be the ones hurt the most. And while it is great to learn that the law can step in in such a situation, that isn’t a pancea in the interim when students return to school to be taught by substitute teachers who rotate in and out of their lives.

I spent two years teaching in the Bronx, zooming in on the four train to stand before a room full of dark faces, returning home to the Upper Eastside, a world where white children—in tutus, soccer cleats and private school uniforms—were escorted home by dark faces. I found myself startled by this contrast.

There are countless schools today named for Martin Luther King Jr.  Almost all of the students in these schools are minority children.

This is not a shocking revelation.  I have read Kozol.  And his books are national best sellers so we can presume that young, idealistic college grads are not the only ones aware of this depressing truth.  But it is so rarely addressed. Charter schools, merit pay, improving teacher quality and extending learning time dominate the education policy debate. Today, it is fashionable to advocate for segregated charter schools as the only alternative for low-income parents and children. Fifty-six years since Brown vs. the Board of Education, and it seems clear that separate, not equal reigns supreme.  In fact, in Stepping over the Color Lines, Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain proclaim: “racial segregation and inequality have become as much a part of our culture as the fourth of July.”  As a student of history, I understand part of how we got here.  The Miliken v. Bradley decision orchestrated by a court packed by Nixon, helped to seal the fate of urban desegregation efforts nationwide.  I just don’t understand why so few people are doing anything to change the status quo.

This past summer I found myself reconsidering my graduate school choices and my life path.  What can a person with law and public policy degrees do in the space of education reform? How is any of this relevant to reforming the system?

I spent the summer composing my own syllabus.  Reading about urban poverty, educational psychology, the history of education. One of my goals was to try to understand what actually constituted education law.  I read about desegregation, education finance reform, and legal challenges to state law constitutions which guarantee children education.

Why is desegregation so rarely part of the education reform conversation?  It is a known fact that one of the largest affects on student achievement is peer effects—low income students benefit from being in a classroom with students of a higher socio-economic status and the higher income children are not hurt.  Why is this so often ignored when we know so little about what else affects student achievement?

I found social scientists who could provide me with answers. Stuart-Wells and Crain write: “As a more aggressive policy, school desegregation represents exactly what whites dislike about particularism and affirmative action: the infringement on their long-term freedoms and liberties to control their personal lives.”

But after paging through a discouraging number of books and studies that seemed to paint integration as a Don Quixote like delusion, I found an antidote to the national lapse on civil rights.  Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh tells the story of Wake County’s inventive income-based integration policy. Grant compares Raleigh to the segregated schools of Syracuse, his hometown, and illustrates his belief that programs like the one in Raleigh are part of the antidote this country needs.

In 2007, the Supreme Court struck down two voluntary desegregation plans that relied heavily on race, holding that race could not be used to determine school placement.  Adopted in 2000 and implemented for the last decade, Wake County’s policy stands as an alternative, integrating students of disparate socio-economic status and ensuring that no more than 40% of students at any given school are low-income. By 2005-2006, the school district had achieved this goal in 85 of its 116 elementary schools and middle schools.  This in itself is something to celebrate.  I have taught in three schools where at least 90% of the students qualified for free lunch (which is a proxy for socio-economic status), and I understand the heavy burdens of a school with so many low-income students.  But the effects of this program are more than simply lowering the burdens of schools. In fact, Wake County, Grant writes: “reduced the gap between rich and poor, black and white, more than any other large urban system in America.”

At the end of his book Grant concludes:

“…this tale of two American cities is not just about test scores. It’s about the kind of nation we hope to become. We should not want, nor shall we ever achieve, a nation of equal test scores or equal incomes. But we need to decide whether we want schools segregated by race and class, or schools that provide equal opportunity for all children—schools where students are enriched by relationships and ways of thinking that help them break out of the boxes of race and class that our flawed history has constructed. Do we believe in a nation that welcomes all comers, provides a level playing field in all its public schools, relishes the clash of ideas, and, as a consequence, enjoys one of the highest rates of upward mobility in the world? Raleigh’s reinvention of the ideals of the American common school made it an exemplar of those dreams and hopes (p. 191).”

A month ago the School Board in Wake County voted to end this inventive program.

I am often struck with the thought that while upper middle class parents blame the achievement gap on others’ bad parenting, those upper middle class parents’ own “good parenting” (read helicopter parenting to the point of only thinking of their precious offspring) acts to prohibit low-income students’ access to opportunities.  I understand that parents do not like having their children bussed across town.  I just don’t understand how anyone can think the experiences of his/her own children are more important than an entire county full of children.

What will happen to the schools in Raleigh?  Will we still be able to proclaim there are no bad schools in Raleigh?  Time will tell.  But even if there are no “bad schools” something vital will be lost.