Rev. Al Sharpton, Other Prominent Democrats Break with Unions, Join Choice Movement

Published September 1, 2008

Teacher unions and other traditional voices in education may be getting it wrong, the Rev. Al Sharpton has decided.

In the past, the civil rights activist has been known more for his opposition to school choice than for any teamwork with New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, but that changed radically in June when Sharpton joined Klein and a diverse group of fellow free-thinkers from all political stripes to form the Education Equality Project, a group advocating more charter schools and greater accountability.

“We keep going to the old ways that don’t work, to protect the political careers of some and the contracts of others at the expense of the children. And the results are the data that we have,” Sharpton said at a June 11 press conference.

“And someone has to have the political and the social courage–and I hope this group helps to begin that nationally–to say, ‘Wait a minute, the children are suffering,'” Sharpton said.

Civil Rights Issue

Klein noted African-American student achievement lags four years behind that of white students nationwide. Fixing that, he said, may mean Democrats such as Sharpton will have to call on the National Education Association (NEA) and other unions to stop standing in the way of systemic reforms.

“We failed to fix what was so obviously broken in the 1950s and long before that,” Klein said. “Today if you’re born African-American or Latino in this country, if your parents are poor, you’re much more likely to fall behind in a struggling school. You’re likely to get much lower scores in math and reading than you need and in other core subjects, and you’re much more likely to drop out. And if you do graduate, you’re more likely to graduate less prepared for college and for success.

“We need to be clear about this. To me, this is not just an issue of school reform. It’s a civil rights issue–indeed, the civil rights issue of our time,” Klein said.

Broad, Bipartisan Support

The Education Equality Project’s goals include creating accountability in every level of schools, putting effective teachers in classrooms of students with the greatest needs, and expanding parental choice through charter schools.

The effort has garnered unusually broad bipartisan support nationwide. Members include former Democratic National Party Chair and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“The results [of today’s school system] are that over half of [our] young black men are not graduating school–many of them fast-tracked to jail and their lives destroyed. And we don’t have the time, because we have our alliances and our old core missions, to speak on their behalf,” Sharpton said.

“This group is being formed to give voice to that, to say to those that are bringing about this era of change, whomever that might be, in the White House or in our houses, that we must make a priority this devastating problem, of lack of equal achievement accessibility for young students around this country,” Sharpton added.

Klein and Sharpton have already begun their campaign to bring their message to the White House by seeking out both presidential candidates this summer. Members of the Education Equality Project have met with the campaign staffs of the presumptive major-party candidates, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL).

NEA Wants More Money

NEA President Reg Weaver said the union has been tackling such issues for years.

“We have recognized that there are a number of children in urban and rural areas that are not receiving the education we want them to receive,” Weaver said. “The policymakers know what is wrong, but they are not doing anything.”

Weaver said school reformers ought to focus on securing “adequate and equitable funding,” smaller classrooms, and more parental involvement. However, NEA and other unions are not so keen on tying teacher performance to wages or expanding charter schools, as the Education Equality Project proposes.

The question, some say, is what “adequate and equitable funding” means.

“Charter schools operate with 40 percent less funding than other public schools,” said Jonathan Oglesby, director of public relations for the Center for Education Reform (CER), a charter school advocacy group based in Maryland.

According to CER’s 2008 charter school survey findings, released in July, charter schools’ main populations are at-risk, minority, and poor students. Eighty-five percent of charter school teachers responding to the survey do not participate in a union.

Christin Coyne ([email protected]) writes from Virginia.

For more information …

“2008 Annual Survey of American Charter Schools,” Center for Education Reform, July 2008: