My wish this holiday season is that this nation re-embrace the concept of “politics makes strange bedfellows,” which used to be a well-known adage before the culture forgot how to create a Venn diagram of overlapping goals and interests. Today, the idea of political opposites sharing a metaphorical Serta is viewed as a betrayal by their respective camps, an infidelity to identity.
Nevertheless, few issues are as ripe for bipartisan cooperation as expanding parental choice in education, which, outside legislative chambers, cuts across political, racial and ethnic lines.
Nobody illustrates that better than Howard Fuller and Ben Sasse, perhaps education reform’s odd couple.
Fuller is a 77-year-old African-American who was a student activist during the civil rights movement, a black-power militant (who during this period changed his name to Owusu Sadaukai), a follower of Malcolm X, and a community organizer.
Sasse is 46 years old, white, a native Nebraskan with degrees from Harvard and Yale, a pleated-khakis Republican U.S. senator with a penchant for wonkery.
In the current political climate, they should be yelling at each other on a cable TV news show.
Instead, they each delivered compelling keynote addresses at the annual ExcelinEd summit Dec. 6-7 in Washington, D.C., both making a moral case for education choice – and for finding common ground.
Despite their dissimilar backgrounds and different styles, Fuller and Sasse embraced similar themes. Both rejected partisan and ideological labels that don’t inform so much as they are used to divide.
“I’m a conservative,” Sasse said in the summit’s opening address, “but I think a lot of what we need in this moment is actually quite radical.”
Fuller, who over the last three decades has been one of the leading advocates for parental choice, was emphatic – and typically provocative — in his refusal to choose political sides.
“I want to be clear: I don’t believe in the Democratic Party or Republican Party,” he declared in the following morning’s keynote. “I don’t believe in none of you all. ‘Cause every one of you has rubbed me on my head at one point in my life and called me ‘boy.’”
Each characterized the debate as presenting a false choice regarding public education.
“Education and schooling are not exactly the same thing,” said Sasse, who before being elected to the Senate in 2014 served four years as president of Midland University in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska. “Education is a goal. Schooling is one of many means to the end. … This system wasn’t ordained by God. There wasn’t some moment where this form of educational delivery was inscribed on tablets.”
Fuller, who is a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and currently a distinguished professor of education at Marquette University, echoed those sentiments: “There’s religion, and there’s different churches. The fight for parent choice, the fight for all of these options for people, IS what public education is. The Milwaukee Public Schools is not public education, it’s a delivery system. And since it wasn’t created by God, we could actually change it now. We could have different ways of creating the delivery system.”
Instead of being captive to process, they argued, focus on the human element, those most affected by policy.
Sasse explained that the current education system was conceived a century-and-a-half ago during a time of rapid industrialization, when people were groomed for jobs in factories and assembly lines. Schools reflected the homogenized factories. The U.S. economy today is undergoing a different kind of transformation that calls for a different approach to education – one that doesn’t treat students as “merely economic actors.”
“Children are not widgets, they are souls,” Sasse said. “Education is not fundamentally about producing homogenized output. It is about forming and nurturing those little souls. Schools are not assembly lines. They are gardens.”
Fuller noted that the choice movement from his perspective didn’t derive from some abstract concept.
“We weren’t sitting in a basement, with all due respect to Milton Friedman, reading ‘Capitalism and Freedom’,” he said. “Hell, I didn’t even know he had written ‘Capitalism and Freedom.’ This struggle didn’t come out of a free-market ideology. It came out of a struggle for social justice.”
That means giving the poor, “the disinherited and dispossessed,” the same choices in education that wealthier Americans have always enjoyed.
Fuller and Sasse show how people can address a problem from different angles and arrive at the same conclusion – if they are willing to travel outside their designated lanes.
For the many addicted to partisanship, that’s behavior modification on par with quitting smoking or losing 30 pounds.
Still, nothing is as persuasive to a politician as an election result, and Florida’s recent gubernatorial race is an eye-opening example of how support for education choice blurs partisan lines and can be a decisive factor in a close contest. Thousands of parents served notice to both major parties that their top priority is finding the best possible education for their children – and that their vote will not go to anyone who endangers that.
“People are gonna have to work together in spite of our government,” Fuller said at the ExcelinEd summit. “… It’s one of those moments in history where we’re gonna have to concentrate on finding a coalition of the willing.”
Don’t rely on Santa to deliver such a gift. Go create your own education choice miracle.
Scott Kent is strategic communications manager for Step Up For Students.