Stronger Together in Education



This is the first in a series on the majory policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda. (For the opposing view, see William J. Bennett and Christopher Beach, "Opportunity Should Take Priority in Education.")


If you are a presidential candidate running on a platform of Stronger Together, as Hillary Clinton is, what do you do once in office to unify the nation? How does a new president help promote the enduring, but increasingly elusive, American goal of creating e pluribus unum? 

Public education is the natural starting place. With the end of the military draft, public schools became the last mass public institution that has the potential to bring together young people of all different economic and racial backgrounds.

The late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974–1997, noted that public schools can provide the critical glue needed to hold our diverse society together. “A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving,” he wrote. “He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other.” That didn’t happen, Shanker argued, in part because public schools “brought together children of different races, languages, religions, and cultures and gave them a common language and a sense of common purpose.”

In order to play that unifying role today, our schools cannot continue to educate rich and poor separately and unequally, as they increasingly do. There is a direct line between economic and racial school integration and national unity. Indeed, before Clinton made “Stronger Together” her campaign slogan last May, the Obama Administration used the same moniker in a February proposal to invest $120 million to encourage socioeconomic integration of students. Building on the work of U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, a Clinton administration will need to find creative ways — using choice and incentives, not compulsory busing — to allow children of all walks of life to come together to learn. Tim Kaine and his wife Anne Holton, who helped integrate public schools in Richmond, Virginia, should be put in charge of these efforts.

Nationally, nearly 100 school districts and charter schools are taking conscious steps toward giving children a chance to learn in socioeconomically integrated environments. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, each school has a distinctive theme or teaching approach; families rank their preferences among schools; and the school district honors choice with an eye to ensuring schools have a mix of rich and poor students.

This effort helps forge not only social cohesion but also social mobility. In Cambridge, 84 percent of low-income students in 2014 graduated in four years, compared with 65 percent of low-income students in nearby Boston. Likewise, 83 percent of black students in Cambridge graduated — a rate 17 points higher than black students in Boston. Nationally, low-income students who have the chance to go to economically-mixed schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics. And school diversity has also been shown to enhance the learning of middle-class students because novel ideals are more likely to come from sharing classes with students with very different life experiences rather than with a homogenous group of pupils. 

By contrast, research suggests that Donald Trump’s proposal to redirect $20 billion away from needy public school students to allow states to fund choice, including private school vouchers, would do little to promote better outcomes for students and would further Balkanize our society. A program to subsidize Muslim students to attend Muslim schools; Jewish students, Jewish schools; and Christian students, Christian schools would use public funds to further divide us. What if voucher dollars instead were used to provide incentives for middle-class public schools to recruit low-income students, a proven way to boost opportunity and integrate students? 

Assuming Hillary Clinton is elected president, her administration should also pursue a major new initiative to put democracy back into education. Many Americans — of both major political parties — are concerned about the health of our democratic system, which saw a candidate with a fondness for authoritarian tactics, ideas, and foreign leaders beat 16 other candidates to capture the nomination of a venerable political party.

In addition to preparing young people to work in a free market economy, public schools have historically been charged with training thoughtful citizens for our democracy. As our form of self-government has matured over 200 years, we’ve grown complacent, as Democrats and Republicans alike have focused almost solely on the market-based benefits of public schooling. Donald Trump’s ascendancy should be a Sputnik moment, sparking investment and attention in the civic purposes of public education, just as Soviet technological developments spurred investment in science education in the 1950s. 

A Clinton administration should recognize and reward schools that teach civics knowledge well and instill a love of democratic values and constitutional principles. In 2013, the NAEP dropped civics assessment for 4th and 12th grades; those should be restored immediately. Moreover, in evaluating schools, student knowledge of the functioning of our democracy should be prioritized alongside reading and math skills. Students need to be not only “career and college ready,” but also fully ready to participate in the rich civic life of the nation.

Along the same lines, the new administration should provide incentives for local schools to model democracy for students because, as unionist Adam Urbanski notes, “You cannot teach what you do not model.” That means giving teachers and parents a voice in the running of schools and providing opportunity for students of all backgrounds to participate in challenging classes that stretch their minds. 

An unnerving 2016 election year should remind us of the central role that public schools must play in sustaining America’s grand experiment is self-governance.


Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). (The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not necessarily represent those of The Century Foundation.)


Author's Recommended Reading:                              

Albert Shanker Institute, Education for Democracy (2003). 

Mark Dynarski, “On negative effects of vouchers,” Brookings Institution, (May 26, 2016).

Richard D. Kahlenberg, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). 

Richard D. Kahlenberg, “From All Walks of Life: New Hope for School Integration,” American Educator, (Winter 2012-13). 

John King, “Stronger Together Why Our Budget Supports Voluntary, Community-led Efforts to Increase Diversity,” Medium (February 9, 2016). 


(Read the response by William J. Bennett and Christopher Beach.)

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