The American Federation For Children and Malcolm X

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Let’s be clear. The American Federation For Children spends significant sums of money to elect candidates who support educational options, and it usually does so in direct competition with teacher unions. But those who dismissed the AFC 2011 National Policy Summit as either politically or philosophically monolithic are playing some partisan games of their own.

Yes, as a Salon columnist readily noted on Monday while depicting the event as “right wing” and “religious right,” the two-day summit in Washington indeed featured speeches by two Republican governors, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Both governors have pushed education agendas that include private school options.

But let’s also fill in the rest of this picture. The event was emceed by a black Democrat and former D.C. Council member, Kevin Chavous. Those sharing the stage over the two days included: Michelle Rhee, a Democrat and former D.C. school chancellor; Ann Duplessis, a black Democrat who served in the Louisiana Senate and is now New Orleans’ deputy chief administrative officer; Alisha Morgan, a black Democrat and Georgia representative; Anthony Williams, a black Democrat and Pennsylvania senator; Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options BAEO; and Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.

The federation’s annual education advocacy award was handed to Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee superintendent and BAEO founder who has called private options for poor black students the civil rights cause of this era. The conference closed with a rousing call to action by an African-American minister from New Jersey, Rev. Reginald Jackson, who invoked the memory of Malcolm X. “We must assure that our children get a quality education,” Jackson intoned, “and, as Malcolm X said, by any means necessary.”

Clearly, this was no Right Wing Revival. It was a potent glimpse at how the politics continue to evolve in the education reform arena and in particular with parental options, which is a story line that education union leaders don’t know how to handle. That bipartisan intersection of interests was captured by Rhee, who laid down her familiar educational marker. “We need to pivot completely away from viewing these issues through the eyes of the adults who run these systems,” Rhee said, “and make certain that in every decision we make that we do what is right for children.”

Even in the more arcane policy sessions, the debate repeatedly played against type. Panelists debating academic accountability for school options discussed not whether to test the students but instead whether to use “a” test or “the” test. That’s a serious-minded distinction between state and national tests for which there is not a clear answer.

Bill Jackson, president of the online school consumer tool Greatschools.org, even admonished those in the room who would view academic transparency with suspicion. “One of the things that bothers me most is when I hear advocates say, ‘I don’t want to release that test information because it might be used against us,’ ” Jackson said. “Of course it might. That’s what it is for.”

This is not meant to understate the strong political and financial support AFC receives from Republicans, including its chairwoman Betsy DeVos, or the significant role Republicans are playing in the national reform effort. But the Republican “right wing” narrative is more than simply careless. It is a type of misdirection that is intended to simplify a more complex political reality. Rev. Jackson is no fat-cat looking to privatize public education for a profit. He is a missionary for social justice who is demanding equal educational opportunity for poor children. That he joins hands with Betsy Devos is a remarkable statement.

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Jon East
Jon East is the Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper – where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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