Focus on School Reform

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Monday, July 7, 2008

SAY WHAT YOU will about the Rev. Al Sharpton, it is hard to ignore -- or deter -- him. And that is good news for those interested in fixing the nation's troubled public schools. In giving his voice to school reform as a true civil rights issue, Mr. Sharpton may help change the nature of the debate. Equally significant is his willingness and that of other leaders in a recently formed coalition to challenge traditional allies in the cause of black and brown children.

Mr. Sharpton has joined New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in heading a fast-growing national coalition of educators, politicians and academicians that aims to focus attention on the real issues of education reform. The Education Equality Project avoids the arcane language of policy in framing school improvement as a matter of basic human rights. How can America boast of equal opportunity when so many black and Latino children are denied a good education? How can we fully take pride in the likely Democratic presidential nomination of Sen. Barack Obama, Mr. Sharpton asks, when fewer than half of all black males graduate from high school?

The group is unsparing in its critique of a system more interested in the political interests of adults than the education rights of children. The system keeps unsuccessful teachers in classrooms, fails to place the best educators where they are needed most and rewards longevity over effectiveness. The Democratic Party's traditional ties to labor unions and civil rights organizations have helped keep that status quo in place. So it's encouraging that Mr. Sharpton is confronting these old friends about the need to bring reason to teacher contracts, revamp policies that consign poor children to the worst schools, and give parents more choice about where their sons and daughters go to school.

Encouraging Mr. Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, to debate these questions is a laudable aim of the group. Education was backstage during the primaries, and a clear picture has yet to emerge of either candidate's positions. Mr. McCain has not been forthcoming with any detailed plan; he is said to be preparing one for the fall. Mr. Obama, as the New York Times' David Brooks recently observed, has promised dozens of crowd-pleasing programs but has been elusive on such thorny issues as teacher tenure and school accountability.

To some extent, both candidates are freed of the political baggage that has constricted their predecessors. Mr. Obama managed to secure his apparent nomination without help from teachers unions, and Mr. McCain can thank President Bush for challenging the traditional Republican aversion to any federal role in education. Both candidates have an opportunity to discuss what makes sense for the nation's schools, rather than what makes for smart politics.


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