Williams: The 2019 Democratic Debates, Where No One Argues For Fixing America With Better Schools

Williams: The 2019 Democratic Debates, Where No One Argues for Fixing America With Better Schools

In the most recent edition of The Atlantic, progressive entrepreneur Nick Hanauer published a thought-provoking article titled "Better Schools Won’t Fix America." As expected, the piece sparked renewed debates within the left about education. Reformers expressed frustration, while critics applauded. Barack Obama even praised the article on Twitter.

The core idea of the article revolved around a newly-coined term, "educationism." Hanauer argued that as long as we continue to believe that education is the sole solution to economic inequality, we will struggle to escape the growing wealth gap. Instead of solely focusing on improving household income, Hanauer critiqued both political parties for emphasizing providing opportunities for disadvantaged children.

While this belief that school reform alone can solve poverty is typically associated with conservatives, it’s not entirely clear whether many progressives share this view. Have they also been pretending that education is the key to solving inequality? Despite Barack Obama’s emphasis on education reform during his presidency, he also worked to expand access to healthcare, advocated for a more progressive tax code, and identified income inequality and social mobility as the pressing challenges of our time. (Incidentally, Hanauer has also written about Obama’s views on inequality.)

So, where are these staunch, progressive educationists hiding? Fortunately, the Democratic Party recently held its first debates for the presidential primary, providing an opportunity to examine this issue. Interestingly, among the 20 candidates who spoke during the two-night event, there was little evidence of the influence of "educationism." Candidate after candidate highlighted the threats that inequality poses to American democracy.

Former representative John Delaney (D-MD) emphasized the need to fix the public education system, as it fails to provide the results our children need. This seems like the perspective of an educationist, right? However, let’s consider the context. Delaney made this remark after calling for an increase in the minimum wage, the establishment of paid family leave, and doubling the earned income tax credit. Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH) advocated for trauma-based care in every school. Former vice president Joe Biden promoted his proposal to triple funding for Title I, a federal program that supports low-income students.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a noted education reformer, was asked about healthcare and swiftly shifted the discussion to education, stating that it is an education issue in low-income communities like his own. This seems to align with the reductionist viewpoint of educationists, right? However, Booker continued by explaining that children without healthcare will struggle to succeed in school.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) insisted that the country needs schools that work for economic opportunity. Again, it seems like the perspective of an educationist, right? But once more, let’s consider the broader context. Klobuchar made this statement after emphasizing the necessity of better childcare for everyone in the country and the importance of a functioning retirement system for a prosperous economy.

These examples seem to be the extent of the educationist perspective among the Democratic candidates. Apart from some discussions on addressing student loan debt and promises to expand access to affordable early education programs, education was largely an afterthought during the debates.

It almost seems as if no major or minor progressive figure, including the numerous Democratic candidates, actually subscribes to Hanauer’s educationism. The notion that schools alone are the primary cause of American inequality is simply not a serious or dominant position among progressives. None of the current Democratic candidates for the party’s presidential nomination believe that public education is the sole solution to addressing inequality.

In his article, Hanauer recommends prioritizing fair wages for workers and investing not only in the education of children but also in their families and communities. This aligns with the views of every single candidate running for the Democratic Party nomination. It also mirrors the approach of the previous Democratic presidential administration. These recommendations are not contradictory to reform policies aimed at improving the equity and performance of U.S. schools, such as fair school funding, rigorous academic standards, regular assessments, transparent data reporting, and meaningful public accountability.

It is crucial to maintain a balanced perspective on this matter. The efforts to reform K-12 education and promote redistribution of wealth are not mutually exclusive. In fact, those involved in the progressive movement for education reform often view K-12 reform as part of broader initiatives to address inequality and social injustice.

A tweet by Conor P. Williams emphasizes that it is possible to support higher taxes for the wealthy, improved wages for American workers, and redistribution programs such as child allowances and a universal basic income, while also advocating for structural reforms within the K-12 public education system.

While an article by Hanauer places the blame on wealthy philanthropists, rather than just the Democratic Party, for perpetuating the belief that educational reform can solve issues of inequality and mobility, this perspective is not particularly groundbreaking or counterintuitive. It is commonly understood by those committed to improving educational equity in America. This is why there is great passion around addressing the ways in which the wealthy are able to use their economic advantages to preserve opportunities for themselves, often through the real estate market. So, although the headline "Better Public Schools Are Part of a Meaningful Strategy to Combat Inequality in America" may not be as attention-grabbing, it is not incorrect.

Note: The opinions expressed here belong solely to Conor P. Williams and do not imply the endorsement of any affiliated organization.

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  • ameliaburke

    Amelia Burke is a 27yo educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is currently a student at the University of Utah. She is interested in creative writing, writing for the web, and public speaking.



Amelia Burke is a 27yo educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is currently a student at the University of Utah. She is interested in creative writing, writing for the web, and public speaking.

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