African-Americans Must Blaze Own Path on School Choice, Ed Reform

I consider myself a proud progressive Democrat. However, I find myself on the outside of my party while defending the most progressive stance I have ever taken.

Tackling the injustices of education, and the outcomes that such injustices present, has been at the forefront of my legislative career. So I was taken aback by the opposition I received from my Democratic colleagues. Though I expected some opposition from those who reflexively oppose any change, never did I imagine the level of pushback I actually received. After supporting lifting the cap on charter schools, and sponsoring opportunity scholarship legislation for children with special needs and low-income students, I was ostracized by my party and progressive institutions in North Carolina.

This pushback has gone beyond policy disputes. Many times I have received personal slights. In an action reminiscent of high school days, the legislative black caucus has sought to exclude me from their traditional lunch table in the cafeteria. There have been senior legislators, from my own party, who came to my office and threatened me politically and personally. I had the teacher’s union, a group ostensibly devoted to harmony among members, call me and say things I thought only happened in the movies.

To say I was unprepared for such pushback is an understatement. It hurts me to be accused of being a false progressive. I once worked for Progressive Majority, and was a senior staffer for Congressman Dennis Kucinich, arguably the most progressive member of Congress, and certainly the most progressive presidential candidate we have had in over two decades. Despite my proven history, I was called a token, a sell-out, and naïve, among other names.

So why does my party take such a conservative stance on an issue with such big implications? Why does my party feel comfortable doing the same thing over and over again, when they know the outcomes? I think there is a historical reason for this opposition, on two fronts.

First, the teacher’s union has been phenomenal in using fear tactics on the issue of school choice, saying it will create segregated schools, take money from public schools, etc. We have heard all these arguments for the past 50 years. We have yet to see any fruit borne from their predictions. But if you claim something over and over again, regardless of whether it is true, it eventually becomes an institutional mindset – one that has perpetuated itself into a perceived truth that my colleagues embrace despite the facts.

Second, partisan politics is a major reason Democrats are hard to reach on this issue. This is mainly because school choice and other education reform proposals often come from the Republican Party. It’s difficult for hardline Democrats to work with the other party on this issue, as though it is an axiom that the Republicans never argue in good faith. Of course there have been times when the Republicans are trying to score political points. Still, politics is neither a game nor a zero-sum endeavor.

I have always taken the position that for me, as an African-American lawmaker, what the other party is trying to do is not my concern. I cannot oppose good policies simply because doing so will hurt the Republicans; my constituents are too important for such partisan gridlock. The problems in education mainly pertain to the outcomes of students who look like me.

There was once a time when African-American political power was still very weak, and we still had reason to believe the old solutions, offered by the leadership of that time, would solve the problems that plague our schools and our young people. Back then, simply supporting those policies and opposing the conservatives may have seemed like enough. But that was then, and this is now.

As African-Americans, we have to understand the power of our own leadership has grown, and our responsibilities have grown along with it. It is no longer enough for us to only mitigate the damage spread by those we oppose. We must move forward into a role of making new policy for our constituents. The time has come for African-American leaders to stop letting people who are not African-American dictate policy that primarily impacts African-Americans.

The problems in our community are our own. It’s up to us as leaders to reject the old rhetoric and get to work fixing the problem.

Marcus Brandon is a Democratic state representative in North Carolina.

This post originally appeared on redefinED.

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