Politicians love to say the word "education," but when it comes to actually doing something about it, outside forces must do the pushing. That is the lesson I learned from the political conventions that took over the airwaves and newsrooms in the last two weeks.
Former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is one such outside force. She was at both the conventions with the same message, which she outlined for me when I sat down with her in Tampa where Republicans gathered. "There is a huge possibility for both parties to say, 'OK on this issue, because it has to do with our kids, we can disagree about taxes and everything else, but let's choose this issue that we can show the American people that we can come together,'" she said.
More from that interview here.
Rhee's grassroots education group StudentsFirst screened Won't Back Down, a movie about two mothers who take on a failing inner-city public school, for delegates and convention guests.
BELL, a nonprofit summer and after-school learning provider, was another outside force. "I probably lost 10 pounds of perspiration," said vice president of schools Joe Small about his two days manning a booth at CarolinaFest, an outdoor carnival of good causes--and bands--organized by the Charlotte host committee for the Democratic National Convention. (The Republican convention did not have a similar exhibit space.) In Charlotte, BELL highlighted the benefits of summer learning for at-risk youth, showing the impact its summer programs have made in a low-income district in the city. Small said the reaction from delegates and visitors alike was, "Wow. How do we bring this back to our community? How do we replicate a Bell program?"
These are just two groups that I happened upon in my wanderings. There were dozens of other education-oriented groups at the conventions. (More of them were at the Democratic convention, in part because many such groups are overtly Democratic.) The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association sent delegates from several states. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel even sat in Vice President Joe Biden's sky box during a tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Democrats for Education Reform held an "education town hall" in Charlotte that included the famous Newark mayor Cory Booker.
For groups like these, having a presence at a national convention is just like advertising. The more attendees see a slogan or logo, the more likely it is that the topic will bubble up in other areas. Political parties welcome this, assuming they agree with the message. They need backup, just like they need people to wave signs during convention speeches. There is no shortage of advocates for education, but herding them in the same general direction is a daunting task. "People have to strap in for the long haul and understand that it's not just one or two things that you can change that will change the system, but it's an entire paradigm shift," Rhee said.
So, advocates, there is almost no disagreement that the country's schools need to improve, but polling shows that education is not "top-tier" for voters. How do you raise awareness? What can you do to make sure a consistent message gets out? How do you handle the areas where you disagree? Is Rhee right in saying that part of the trick is converting the local battles into a national narrative? Or do you need a bunch of local, grassroots groundswells to provoke changes in individual communities?