During President Barack Obama’s eighth and final State of the Union address, the President boldly proclaimed the U.S. as “the most powerful country in the world…by far.” As the leader of the most powerful country in the world, President Obama also assessed one of his biggest regrets: his inability to bring Congress together to reach consensus and make progress on a number of critical issues. President Obama’s proclamations highlight a simple fact that future administrations and Congresses must embrace — with power comes responsibility.
To the Obama Administration’s credit, they have been able to ensure healthcare for most Americans, move the country closer towards marriage equality, and provide increased opportunity for LGBT students and the students of undocumented immigrants. Yet, the reality remains that too many parents and young people live in communities that make them feel powerless, whether it’s parents and young people fighting for justice in Ferguson, Cleveland, or Baltimore, or simply trying to get access to clean water in Flint, Michigan. Thus, the major responsibility in the final year of the Obama Administration, and the central focus of a new administration, should be leveraging America’s power to ensure that every parent and student can enjoy a healthy living and learning community.
Our education system is the only nationwide network of public institutions that virtually all of us go through. As a result, our schools remain the most promising state and local power hubs for parents and students to access the supports that are necessary in order to create healthy living and learning communities. Through the newly-signed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to No Child Left Behind, a large portion of the power, control, and accountability for our public schools has been refocused to the state and local level. While this allows more flexibility for states to integrate various approaches to address their unique challenges, we must also recognize that there is a real danger in limiting the responsibility of the federal government for education. The federal government has an important role to play in both monitoring and ensuring equity and fairness; communities should be able to rely on that federal power to benefit their parents and children.
Connecting Our Issues
With another Martin Luther King Day behind us, we should take heed to his reminder that the problems our country faces can’t be fixed by addressing their symptoms, but only by changing their root causes. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Achieving the goal of providing young people access to a healthy living and learning community capable of providing all students an opportunity to learn will not be realized if we use dated narratives and tactics to approach these challenges. It is fitting that President Obama mentioned the word “change” twenty times during his speech, as the challenges we face reside in identifying and delivering the broad array of supports needed to change the climate in which our young people live and learn. Our new narratives must focus on surrounding our public schools with the supports capable of addressing a host of interconnected issues:
- Education Structures — ensuring that education systems and their employees in all communities have the supports and resources necessary for deeper learning to occur.
- School Climate & Discipline — ensuring that schools promote positive learning climates and that discipline in schools is a tool to strengthen and restore students rather than push them out.
- Community Power & Social Capital — ensuring that parents, students, and all community actors are empowered through civic engagement to fully participate in the democratic process and manage their community’s social capital.
- Trauma & Safety — with the rising number of young people who have experienced trauma or have safety concerns, ensuring that the necessary mental health and community resources are available to increase their belief of existing in a safe environment.
- Physical Health — ensuring that health challenges like poor eyesight, asthma, and general health needs are not a barrier to any student’s opportunity to learn.
- Economic Health — ensuring that a significant portion of individuals in all communities can access jobs that pay livable wages along with the necessary capital to create jobs and expand their community’s economic health.
- Housing Infrastructure & the Built Environment — ensuring the presence of affordable housing and an increase in the number of long-term residents within a district who can afford to put down roots and build community resilience.
Addressing each of these is essential because many issues facing us as a nation are interconnected, and nowhere more so than in our public education system. Low-wage jobs and high unemployment mean parents must work longer hours, have less time to spend with their children, can’t afford the healthiest meals, and their local schools suffer with less revenue. Unaffordable healthcare means that children often don’t get the preventive care they need, or they’re distracted at school by a toothache, or they don’t have the glasses they need to see the blackboard. A racially-biased school discipline and criminal justice system means that children of color are disproportionately pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline. Pollution and climate change mean children are exposed to harmful chemicals that cause asthma or delay brain development.
If our obstacles are interconnected, our solutions must be as well. For the past several years Schott has worked with parents, teachers, youth, and policy advocates to promote a community school model of public education. A community school is one that provides wraparound supports — like healthcare, mentoring, and job training — for all students. It’s a school that opens its doors to serve the community in which it resides and partners with local organizations to integrate a full spectrum of services. More than just an idea, it’s a model that we see working in towns and cities across the United States like Oakland, Cincinnati, and Hartford.
Connecting Our Movements
Popular movements — from immigrant rights to the Movement for Black Lives to Fight for $15 to education justice — have much more in common than we often think, and can only grow stronger when we knock down our issues silos and work together. Last fall we helped bring these groups together in a convening to strengthen the bonds between them and chart a path toward victory in all our struggles.
We stand with those who are building power to improve education in their districts and states. For example, communities and advocates are organizing for expanded early care in state houses and city halls across the country. To that end, Schott teamed up with the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education to produce a state policy guide for early childhood education. We’ve produced similar guides for those working to end the school-to-prison pipeline. The success of New York City’s trailblazing universal pre-K program is due to grassroots coalitions of parents, teachers, youth, and organizers not waiting on Congress, but rather working together from the bottom-up to make change in their communities right now.
As the President said in his State of the Union address, “The future we want — opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach.”
The generation destined to build and lead that future is sitting in a classroom right now. The most powerful thing we can do as a nation is ensure that every child grows up in a healthy living and learning community and has a fair and equitable opportunity to learn, regardless of race, gender, orientation, religion, or income. When we support our public education systems as power hubs that allow all communities to access the supports needed to be good local and global partners, then we will truly live up to the great responsibility our nation’s power demands of us.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.