Gene and I attended the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit in Washington last week.  There were 600 attendees, almost all educational entrepreneurs committed to systemic change.  One of the conference highlights was a discussion between Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Representative George Miller, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, moderated by Ted Mitchell, NSVF’s CEO.  When they left the dais, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (who was Superintendent of Denver Public Schools before his appointment to the Senate) and Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado gave their perspectives.

They all alluded to the increasing politicization of education and the need for “edupreneurs” and reform advocates to confront directly the politics of our work.  Education has been a hot-potato political issue since the days of Mark Twain (who famously said, “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board”) and has been a major issue on the federal level since the Reagan administration (which proposed eliminating the Department of Education).  But Secretary Duncan emphasized that the current time is a “generational opportunity” for real change, and he pointed out that there is substantial bipartisan support for reform efforts, especially in chronically underperforming schools and underserved communities.  (“This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. We’re doing this for the children.”)

But across the country, it is often about Democrats and Republicans.  In Texas, for example, Bill White, former mayor of Houston, is running for Governor and has made education a central theme, saying the government has done nothing to stop a third of Texas high school students from dropping out in the last decade and for allowing tuition at state universities to skyrocket.  Mr. White may be right about the drop-out issue – it’s a problem almost everywhere and of crisis proportions in many urban areas – but state universities in Texas have some of the most reasonable tuitions in the nation.  As the economic downturn has forced cutbacks and tuition increases at essentially all of the nation’s colleges (and threatens the survival of some), a year’s tuition at UT-Arlington, where Dawn Eidelman used to teach, is less than $4,300, and costs at its flagship campus in Austin are only a couple hundred dollars more.  In comparison, in-state tuition at my alma mater, Michigan State University, is almost three times that much, and MSU’s out-of-state tuition is close to $30,000.

Mayor White is hardly the only politician focused on educational issues.  To avoid draconian cutbacks in state funding for education in Arizona, Governor Brewer staked her political career on a sales tax measure, which the voters approved in a special election on Tuesday; at the opposite end of the country, Governor Crist of Florida vetoed a controversial education bill to pave the way for his campaign for the U.S. Senate as an independent; and one of the most influential political action committees in the country is the Democrats for Education Reform PAC, which only supports candidates who support charter schools.  The PAC has become so powerful in this new political landscape, the New York Times reports, the advice often given to candidates seeking campaign contributions is to “Talk to Joe” – Joe Williams is DFER’s executive director.

I am not sure that we need to talk to Joe, but we do need to speak to politicians, to reporters and directly to voters.  As speaker after speaker at NSVF’s Summit said, we need to make sure our stories are heard and that the great work that Team Mosaica and our colleagues in the education reform movement are doing is known, supported and nurtured.  Generational opportunities don’t come around that often.

Michael J. Connelly
Chief Executive Officer
Mosaica Education, Inc.
42 Broadway – Suite 1039
New York, New York 10004
(212) 232-0305, Ext. 201
Fax: (212) 232-0309