By Jeff Bryant, Bertis Downs
At the recent Netroots Nation conference, the country’s largest annual gathering of progressive activists and political leaders, a protest broke out when Stacey Evans, candidate for governor in the 2018 Georgia Democratic primary, addressed the crowd.
The protesters held up signs saying, “Stacey Evans = Betsy DeVos” and “School Vouchers ≠ Progressive.”
The protest was fueled in part by Evans’ support for a controversial Amendment One proposal in Georgia that called for an Opportunity School District that would have allowed the state to take over low performing schools and transfer their management to a charter company. Evans was one of only eleven Democrats who voted for the bill to proceed to a November ballot, where it lost badly, by 60 to 40 percent.
The idea behind Amendment One was resurrected this year as a new bill, also imposing some of the same interventions on the same schools – including state takeover, although not mandatory charter management – without any extra funding to support those schools.
During the chanting at the Netroots Nation protest – which continued for the full ten minutes of Evans’ presentation – a woman sitting near me checked out the voting record of Evans’ opponent, Stacey Abrams.
Turns out, Abrams had voted against the original Amendment One bill but joined Evans in voting for the resurrected bill, although she called it “imperfect.”
I asked Bertis Downs, a parent and a public school activist who lives in Athens, what he thought of the imbroglio. Downs is a board member of the Network for Public Education (and also the former manager of the band R.E.M). Here is his response:
“A few years ago, I decided to quit bothering with politics. I’d had it with politicians who say one thing and do another, who say they support public schools but abandon this conviction once in office. Talk is cheap, and when it comes to public education, political talk is especially cheap.
I set about working to improve our local schools at the grassroots level, because the way we do education affects everybody’s kids. Soon, however, I realized that to make a difference in public education, I had to engage in politics.
So many important decisions that affect schoolchildren in my town, in your town and in every town in Georgia are made in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Politicians make decisions about funding our schools, providing extra support for students who need it, regulating the number of kids in classes, ensuring the quality of the facilities students learn in, determining the number and frequency of tests they take, and deciding how to interpret and use the results of those tests.
Politicians set the tone and make the rules for how our children are educated. Ideally, the professionals would have a role in the legislative process, but because of politics they don’t.
Parents, both Democrat and Republican, want the best possible education for their children. Yet funding is a political football, and for our communities to achieve an effective win, we all have to play the game.
What does it take to provide quality, top-notch education for our students? It takes a corps of skilled, experienced, and fulfilled teachers who are treated like professionals. It takes a rich and varied curriculum including the arts and physical education. It takes reasonable class sizes, adequate facilities, support for students with special needs. It takes involved parents and a feeling of community within the school. Many of our political leaders would rather impose ideological ‘solutions’ from the bag of mirrors known as ‘choice’ – or more accurately ‘privatization’ – rather than provide the necessary resources, which cost real money, to achieve this.
I continue to wait for a strong education candidate for governor. I don’t see a candidate who is speaking out about the importance of listening to educators when crafting education policy. I am not talking about gimmicks like vouchers, corporate charter chains, state takeover based on the standardized test scores of our most disadvantaged students.
I am talking about a true commitment to improving all our public schools. So far, all I see is a gaggle of ambitious career politicians who voice their “support” of public education, but when the chips are down, the deals are made and laws are passed, they generally have voted to undermine our state’s public school system.
I have been interested in Georgia’s gubernatorial elections since my own high school days in DeKalb County. Therefore, I am unsettled to be this close to an election without a single candidate I can support. Not one – on either side of the aisle – has a strong K-12 education position, just empty slogans. Who will step up?
There is ample space for someone to run on a real public education platform with a track record, a plan and the intention to follow through. When that person announces his or her candidacy, I predict he or she will immediately become a credible candidate. I predict he or she will likely win in November 2018. Voters are hungry for a public education system that works for everyone and a politician to make it possible.
Take the discredited Opportunity School District state take-over proposal as an example. It was soundly defeated last November by voters throughout the state. Let’s stop the serious disconnect between what people want and how politicians vote.
Aspiring governors of Georgia, please keep this in mind.