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Clinton education plan
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a campaign event in New York, Monday, July 13, 2015. Credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Having just secured American Federation of Teachers endorsement and with Republican presidential candidates torn between big donors favoring test-driven accountability and a base strongly opposed, Hillary Clinton has a broad avenue for crafting a coherent national vision built on her “everyday Americans” campaign theme.

In her speech at the New School July 13, Clinton pointed to her lifelong commitment to education from the start of her career when she worked for the Children’s Defense Fund to guarantee education for children with disabilities. Last month, her Roosevelt Island speech tantalized, but offered few specifics beyond promises of preschool and “teachers second to none in the world [who] receive the respect they deserve for sparking the love of learning in every child.”

What would a clearer educational vision look like? Can Clinton thread the needle between localism and globalism, the two ideological poles roiling Republican politics? Put another way, can she effectively shift from Obama’s centralizing influence without losing advocates of higher standards, accountability, and choice who have dominated the national education discourse for over a decade?

Everyday American education is not sexy but it brought us unparalleled economic success for over a century while sustaining ideals of participatory democracy. Key to this is the resurgent pluralism that marks schooling in this country, compared to other nations.

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America’s pluralistic educational system is at the heart of our national identity and current debates over curriculum, testing, standards, choice, and inequality. Understandably, flaws intrinsic to this tradition of educational localism have been under attack for decades, at least since Brown v. Board upended Jim Crow schooling.

Federal requirements are important

Later, with passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a/k/a No Child Left Behind) and Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now IDEA), many school practices previously left to districts and states came under active federal control.

Today, with annual test mandates under No Child Left Behind, teacher evaluations required under Race to the Top and NCLB waiver provisions, and instructional dictates under the Common Core State Standards, federal requirements have come to dominate electoral concerns. Add to these, recent U.S. Department of Education sweeping requirements on everything from school discipline to student lunches and we see what led the National School Boards Association to cry, “federal intrusion can no longer be ignored.”

Clinton’s challenge is to set the pendulum swinging back without overcorrecting and to present an overarching vision that is not just a collection of right-, center-, and left-overs. She must explain how these initiatives will lead to a better educated nation, a learning society that combines local discretion with federal guarantees of civil rights and fiscal adequacy, especially in high poverty urban, suburban, and rural districts.

At the grass roots, such a coherent vision is taking shape. In New York, the Harlem Children’s Zone is creating that seamless schooling society that not only focuses on institutionalized K-12 education but parenting, pre-school, recreation, health care, and volunteerism including tutoring and other community service. A charter school plays a big role in HCZ’s vision but there is no reason that traditional public schools could not also do the job.

Related: As federal ed rewrite gains traction in Congress, here are some key changes schools may see.

The point is that, aided by federal funds, a community network of mutually supportive institutions is making learning – not just schools – a core pursuit for children and adults in neighborhoods where academic achievement has been neglected. A report, “Poverty and Potential” by Arizona State Professor Henry C. Berliner makes the research-based case for these combined in-school and out-of-school endeavors. Multiplied, this became President Obama’s “Promise Neighborhoods” initiative but it failed to take hold as a major part of his agenda when Common Core and teacher evaluation systems took center stage.

But it looks like the mandated Common Core is dead. And while annual testing is likely to survive, the high stakes of No Child Left Behind are being abandoned under bi-partisan amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act currently being negotiated. Clinton’s dig to promote “the love of learning in every child” signals that she’s joined that bandwagon.

She can use this opening to embrace a big tent education agenda originally urged by Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary, Terrell Bell, who endorsed “the learning society that America must become if it is to survive and achieve its destiny.” For Clinton, that statement neatly cuts the ideological Gordian knot through a coherent vision of interconnected reforms that can marry traditional federal guarantees of equity with pluralistic standards of excellence and accountability.

This change requires dynamic leadership not confined to campaign homilies.  More than an Education Department matter, the post-Obama education agenda plays into Clinton’s varied national experience as a strategic thinker and in her breaking-the-glass-ceiling role as a working mother and grandmother.  This is not just about education but about social mobilization and parent/professional/volunteer partnerships that dovetail closely with the Clinton narrative that “It Takes a Village”.

Distanced from the acrimony of internal Republican politics, Clinton has an opportunity to craft a coherent national vision for everyday Americans that goes beyond traditional schools and teachers to meet global education challenges consistent with American values.  She can engage voters with a Pre-K – college/adult education system that is both innovative and effective, a shared national endeavor engaging “everyday Americans” as mission partners, not mere consumers.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

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