With visionary education policy, Obama is best bet

This summer, Avery Martinez, a seventh grader from Williamsburg, Queens, convinced me that we need Barack Obama to be our next president.

In an advisory session I taught at Breakthrough Collaborative in New York, I asked the students — all talented, low-income, mostly minority middle schoolers — to name three role models, dead or living. Echoing the answers of his classmates, Avery said, “Derek Jeter, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama.” Jeter and Dr. King seemed like obvious choices, but I was curious why he mentioned Obama. “He’s really smart, and he made something of himself,” Avery explained, “and he shows us that we can, too.”

Between Iraq, Iran, health care, and social security, one critical issue has been almost entirely omitted from presidential debates and media coverage: education. Though not surprising, this lack of attention comes at a decisive juncture in education policy-making, as perhaps the single most important piece of education legislation in history, the No Child Left Behind Act, is up for reauthorization. At such a critical fork in the road, we need the leadership and vision of Sen. Obama to change No Child Left Behind from a slogan to a reality.

Last March, Obama traveled to Selma, Ala., to mark the anniversary of the voting rights march there by delivering a dazzling speech about civil rights at a historically black church. More than his invocation of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement or his poignant metaphors of the “Moses” and “Joshua” generations, what impressed me the most were these words: “We have too many children in poverty in this country, and everybody should be ashamed, but don’t tell me it doesn’t have a little to do with the fact that we got too many daddies not acting like daddies.”

As his words in Selma show, Obama is uniquely positioned to unite the country to reform education. Typical of his non-partisan vision, Obama sees families and schools as responsible together for educating our children. Yes, we must increase equity and give districts the funds they need to help children achieve, but educational values must also be reinforced at home — success is nearly impossible if, as Obama said in Selma, “parents don’t turn off the television set when the child comes home from school and make sure they sit down and do their homework.”

As in his speech in Detroit telling automakers that they need to raise emissions standards, Obama’s speech in Selma demonstrated that he is not afraid to tell constituencies the harsh truths they sometimes do not wish to face. Obama also backed his words with actions, introducing the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act with Sen. Evan Bayh to give tax relief to families and fathers while also increasing child support services and strengthening domestic violence enforcement.

As with other issues, Obama does not view education as a Republican or Democratic debating point, but as an American challenge that we can overcome together. Unlike liberals who use NCLB as a rallying cry to bolster support from teachers’ unions, Obama recognizes that accountability and testing are crucial if we are to insist on educational equity on a national level. And unlike conservatives who will avoid increasing funding in any way possible, Obama understands that high standards are only half the battle; the other half is supporting teachers and local districts to help actually reach those expectations. His plan to reform NCLB includes grants for local districts to provide innovative and comprehensive professional development, and increasing pay for teachers who agree to mentor younger teachers and for those who will teach at low-performing schools. Finally, Obama views higher education not as a privilege reserved for the rich, but as something that should be open to all Americans through increased Pell grants and more support of the federal Direct Loan program.

It is this vision — which sees beyond partisan battles of years past into a better future for our nation’s children — that we need so desperately.

Education cannot be reformed with one Democratic or one Republican policy, but with a host of ideas that tackle the issue from all angles, similar to what the New York Times Magazine recently called Obama’s “Swiss-Army knife” approach to foreign policy. Indeed, as with Iraq, Iran, health care and every other issue we face, education will not be dramatically improved until we stop thinking as red states and blue states, and start thinking as the United States.

We need a president who can inspire Avery Martinez, but we also need a president who can unite the country to give Avery the kind of education he deserves. I believe Barack Obama will be that president.

Sam Brill is a sophomore in Trumbull College. He is the co-director of the Roosevelt Institution’s Center on Education.

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