School choice movement leaders try to push past political polarization

The divide between Democrats and Republicans has grown starker over the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. That growing polarization, documented by the Pew Research Center, has begun to plague the politics of education.

Last week, when Foundation for Excellence in Education convened advocates and policymakers for its annual conference in Nashville, speakers and attendees focused underlined the importance of overcoming the divide.

Indeed, over the weekend, The New York Times reported from the conference that President Trump has stymied Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ efforts to expand school choice because he has “paralyzed efforts at cooperation and whose language and policies are seen as antagonistic toward low-income minority communities.”

“Education should not be a partisan issue,” former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is now president of ExcelinEd, said in his opening address. “We need to have broader coalitions, broad left, right coalitions and that’s been tattered. Make friends with people on the other side. Make sure you are inclusive in your efforts to build these coalitions. There is strong support for vouchers and charter schools across the country and we need to take advantage of that.”

Bush’s unified message represented a shift in tone from a year ago. Less than a month after Trump’s election and roughly a week after DeVos’ appointment, he called for a political “earthquake” to shake up the status quo in education.

This year, the calls for change were clear as ever. But they came alongside growing calls for advocates to look beyond partisan divides and Trump-era tribalism.

In the event’s closing speech, Steve Perry, the founder of Capital Preparatory charter schools, also spoke about the need to shed party labels of “Democrat” and “Republican.”

“We find ourselves nitpicking at such a level that we don’t allow ourselves to see at the end of the day whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you are a person that cares about kids,” he said.

Attendees at the conference reflected that message. Florida attendees included Reps. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Jones took flak on Twitter from education reform critics for attending. He responded that he supports public schools and is interested in “learning and hearing both sides” — a stance consistent with his aisle-crossing style.

Some conference speakers advocated agendas that cross the usual party lines in education debates.

Hadi Partovi, cofounder of Code.org cited one subject both parties can agree on: the teaching of computer science.

Showing slides of Presidents Trump and Obama, Partovi said while the two leaders do not agree on much, they would both support computer science being taught in the schools.

“There is a lot of hurt in our country,” he said. “The message that our schools should teach computer science is the most bipartisan in America.”

Bush, too, emphasized the idea that preparing students and schools for technological change could help the movement map an agenda that short-ciricuits divisive politics. On improving computer science instruction, he said, in this “hyper-partisan world, trying to find the intersection where good politics and good policy exists, this is one of them.”

It is critical, he said, to focus on “building policy across the aisle.”

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