Q&A: The Education Stakes in Election 2016

AP Photo/J. David Ake, File

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. 

Last October, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, gave Hillary Clinton one of her earliest organized labor endorsements. Since then, the powerful group has been one of Clinton’s most vocal supporters. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump have spent much time discussing public K-12 education issues during the primary season. But recently, elementary and secondary education topics have attracted more attention. Clinton began articulating her education policy ideas at union conventions this month and Republican leaders championed school choice at their national convention last week.

The American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen sat down in Philadelphia with Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the three million-member NEAto discuss the upcoming election, and what’s at stake for teachers and students. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.

Rachel Cohen: I’ve been paying close attention to the Clinton campaign’s public statements surrounding charter schools, including her adviser Ann O’Leary’s remarks at the Democrats for Education Reform’s forum Monday. Hillary says she opposes for-profit charters, but supports high-quality ones. What does the NEA want to see specifically from Clinton on the charter school issue?

Lily Eskelsen García: When we talk about charter schools, there’s been an evolution from what [former American Federation of Teachers president] Al Shanker once said, that we should be able to have these innovative incubators of great, creative ideas that can inform the whole system and that we should try them in some places before we explode them all over a system.

We now have franchised for-profit charter schools, the big chains. Those are the ones that say we’re proprietary, we’re copyrighted, we’re here to make money, and we’re not here to inform anybody. Sometimes even the nonprofit ones have proprietary suppliers with owners on their charter board—so there are conflicts of interest. [These schools] have nothing whatsoever to do with improving the system.

Hillary Clinton is on the exact same page as we are, [she] says there are some innovative charter schools that were designed to impact the system, to try something creative. But if a charter has any other reason for existing, like making someone money, then she does not support those, and neither do we. I don’t care if they call it a for-profit or if it’s technically a nonprofit.

There’s been a renewed national discussion around school integration since the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education two years ago. School segregation was notably absent from the Democratic Party’s K-12 platform. Why isn’t school segregation getting more attention and do you think the NEA could play a bigger role in pushing desegregation forward?

If you take a look at the most highly segregated schools, if you’re looking at all Latino kids, or all African American kids, then you’re mostly looking at charter schools. Poor communities usually end up being described as “poor, minority” communities. Why do those words go together? Why do those two adjectives have to describe the same communities? You can’t just treat the school. You have to treat the entire community. You have to treat poverty.

Integrating schools will not cure the poverty that affects those students. What they’ve done to integrate schools in some places where I’ve been is that they’ve closed down the school in the black neighborhood, and put those kids on a bus, and shipped them for an hour to the white school. They usually broke up the community so that you wouldn’t have a majority-minority school. We’ve seen [integration] done so poorly. What we really want to focus on is equity.

Do you draw a distinction between the movement to integrate schools and equity?

When you talk about school integration, there’s so much more than let’s just have black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom. You can do that simply by assigning kids to different schools. But why are there deep pockets of poverty where black and brown children live? You have to be talking about the roots of what’s going on.

Some observers say that the new Democratic Party platform is a repudiation of the test-based accountability measures the Obama administration backed to identify and address the needs of poor students of color. As we transition towards the Every Student Succeeds Act, which leaves student achievement goals up to state education departments, do you worry about losing important tools, data, or information that might help students who fall through the cracks?

Interesting way that you framed that question. What was supposed to happen [under No Child Left Behind] didn’t happen. The kids really didn’t have a broad-based, comprehensive education. They were given less. [School officials] got rid of the music programs, the school psychologists. They got rid of the things that kids did, the things kids really needed.

We got bad data. If you have corrupt data, then you’re going to have corrupted decisions. So they were making horrible decisions based on standardized tests. That’s what is repudiated. Ted Kennedy, and even George Bush, they didn’t mean to hurt kids [with No Child Left Behind]. These weren’t sinister people. They simply forgot to ask a teacher what might the unintended consequences be of judging everything in your school and everything about a student based on whether they had a certain score on a standardized test. So we’ve got now 14 years under this insanity, and all of those folks who really, truly believed in this, have egg on their face. It’s been an unmitigated disaster.

But now it’s gone, it’s dead. It’s going to take a little while to sputter out, but we now have removed the federal mandate for making high-stakes decisions based on standardized tests.

Donald Trump hasn’t spoken too much about schools on the campaign trail, but his vice presidential pick Governor Mike Pence has focused on education policy in Indiana. What kind of team do you think Trump and Pence would be on public education?

What a good question! But you have to ask Trump because he won’t tell anybody. If you go on Hillary’s website and you say what’s your position on special education, she’ll talk about full funding and specific services that need to be provided and paid for. If you go on Trump’s website, the only thing you’re going to find on education, the last time I looked, was how much he hates our association, and how if we just didn’t have unions, then all would be well. So I assume that means his education plan is to silence our educators’ voices as we try to advocate for our students and our profession. And with Mike Pence, it’s vouchers. It’s a doubling down on all of the things that thoughtful people on both sides of the aisle are moving away from.

Last year, I reported on the movement to unionize charter school teachers. There are obvious tensions between trying to limit the growth of charter schools, while making charter school teachers feel welcome in the labor movement. How has the NEA been threading this needle?

There is a long and healthy debate [about these issues] amongst our own affiliates and members. I actually went to a California charter school to talk to teachers there and a lot of them had come from the CTA [the NEA’s California state affiliate]. These were good-hearted, social justice warrior teachers who had been very loyal union members. They weren’t trying to leave the union, the charter school just seemed like an adventure. So they got there, and all was well in the beginning, but slowly they realized that they didn’t have the opportunities to make the kinds of decisions they expected to have a say in. The teachers felt lied to and exploited. So they came back to the CTA and said we need representation. They didn’t want to give up on their charter, but they wanted a union.

Can the NEA help them?

Well, you know there are different rules. Technically every charter is public because they get public money. But it is a private system and privately managed. So we would have to reinvent the rules. But when our locals respond to a group of charter educators that want to be unionized, there is nobody that I’ve met who says, you know we really need to grow the charter movement. They’re responding to people who are feeling cheated and exploited, and who worry about their students. Charter teachers are saying we don’t want to give up on our school, but we need a union voice. So they’re coming in and saying we want to look at how we can do this, and we’re helping them explore it.

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