Spend any time on Twitter or in the blogosphere and the national debate about public education quickly resembles a schoolyard brawl, complete with taunts, name-calling and piling on.
Issues such as teacher tenure, parent triggers, charter schools and the Common Core State Standards bring out vitriol even among policymakers and prominent figures.
A Colorado congressman tweeted last year that Diane Ravitch, an education historian and de facto leader of public school activists, was an “evil woman.” Ravitch, in turn, blogged that an advocate for parent trigger laws was “loathsome.” Racially tinged expletives have been hurled at Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor, while an entire Web site has been created to lampoon Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who is challenging teacher tenure laws around the country.
Into the fray steps Education Post, a nonprofit group that plans to launch Tuesday with the aim of encouraging a more “respectful” and fact-based national discussion about the challenges of public education, and possible solutions.
Peter Cunningham, the former communications guru for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is leading the organization, which is backed with initial grants totaling $12 million from the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation and an anonymous donor.
It will focus on three areas: K-12 academic standards, high-quality charter schools, and how best to hold teachers and schools accountable for educating students.
“At some level, it feels as if it’s people . . . just screaming at each other from across the aisle,” Cunningham said. “We can have differences of opinion about these policies, but they should be based on facts, not fear. An honest, open conversation is possible among people of good will. We want to elevate those voices that are not being heard and counter the voices that are misleading, either willfully or not.”
Bruce Reed, president of the Broad Foundation, said the idea for Education Post originated with his organization but that other philanthropic groups had recognized the need years ago.
“We had a shared disappointment in the tenor of the debate,” said Reed, a former chief of staff to Vice President Biden and former chief executive of the Democratic Leadership Council.
One of the goals of Education Post is to publicize what works in public education, Reed said.
“Administrators, school leaders and teachers have papers to grade, schools to run, and they don’t have time to get out and talk about this,” he said. “This is an effort to help spread information about what works both inside the field and outside.”
Education Post also will have a “rapid response” capacity to “knock down false narratives” and will focus on “hot spots” around the country where conflicts with national implications are playing out, Cunningham said.
While there are myriad nonprofit organizations devoted to K-12 education, none are focused solely on communication, said Howard Wolfson, an adviser to Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“There hasn’t really been an organization dedicated to sharing the successes of education reform around the country,” Wolfson said. “You have local success, but it isn’t amplified elsewhere. And there is a lot of success. There is also an awful lot of misperception around what ed reform is, and there hasn’t been an organization . . . focused on correcting those misimpressions.”
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — a one-time organizer for the teachers union who as mayor embraced charter schools, parent-trigger laws and other policies at odds with the unions — is leading the group’s advisory board.
“The left-right paradigm is not working,” Villaraigosa said. “We get a blame game that really doesn’t produce or help generate the results we need. We need to bring stakeholders from across the spectrum together for a new conversation.”
One stakeholder missing from the new organization is organized labor.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agrees that the polarized debate is not productive. “The polarization . . . won’t solve the problems of social immobility, income inequality or help public education become the ladder of opportunity for more kids.”
She said her union welcomes “people who want to solve problems, and improve, rather than throw stones at public education,” but hasn’t agreed to otherwise support Education Post.