Over 1,000 education reform leaders from nearly every state descended into the nation’s capital last week for the 2016 National Summit on Education Reform. The event, sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, gave reformers a chance to share best practices and connect with colleagues in the movement while planning for a future that looks more promising in the wake of the November elections.
The gathering, known affectionately as “Jeb fest,” after Foundation chairman and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was one of the first large gatherings of education reformers following surprising Republican Party victories last month. Reformers see the results as a boon for policies that devolve greater control of education to state and local governments.
To laughter, Bush told the crowd that he had actually hoped he wouldn’t be attending this year’s conference — a reference to his failed presidential campaign that saw him dropping out shortly after losing the Republican South Carolina primary to the eventual Republican presidential nominee and president-elect Donald Trump.
Still, the mood was jovial among participants who are bullish about bolstering charter school expansion, school choice and Education Saving Accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to chose how to spend state education dollars to pay for tuition fees, tutoring services and even textbooks.
Trump’s designated education secretary, Betsy DeVos, will likely support those policies, given her long track record championing education reform. DeVos is also a board member for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, but was absent from this year’s gathering.
Bush endorsed many of these proposals in his opening speech, but also urged attendees to move away from talking about education policy in purely technical and economic terms. “If we are going to win this fight, we need to stop talking about this in financial terms and start talking about this in moral terms,” Bush said.
“If we are going to win this fight, we need to stop talking about this in financial terms and start talking about this in moral terms”
To make his point, the son of former President George H. W. Bush related a story of a young man he met while governor who had a hard time reading a simple book. He told the crowd that he cried after the exchange, feeling helpless knowing the educational system had failed the young man completely.
For Shawn Peterson, associate director for public policy at the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Bush’s talk was a call to action to broaden public support for reform. “It is about one kid at a time. Because if this is only about statistics, then it’s not worth it… So yeah, this is a moral issue for us,” Peterson told Opportunity Lives.
And in some places, like West Virginia, there is a sense of urgency to act quickly to turn things around when it comes to educating young adults. “We have been doing it the same for a really long time. We are ranking 47, 48 and 49 consistently. And so it’s time for us to look at some reforms,” said Jill Upson, a delegate representing West Virginia District 65. Upson was one of hundreds of elected officials who traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn about education reform measures that are working in other states, particularly when it comes to bridging racial achievement gaps that plague many states.
Although many in the crowd identified themselves as Republican and conservatives, there were plenty of independents and Democrats on hand, too.
In one of the most attended panels, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice moderated a panel with former education secretaries Arne Duncan, who served under President Barack Obama, and Bill Bennett, who served under President Ronald Reagan. While there were some policy differences among the panelists, which also included Rod Paige, President George W. Bush’s first education secretary, there were also plenty of points of agreement, including expanding technical and trade school as alternatives to a four year college degree, increasing transparency and holding educators to high standards.
All of these elements are important, Rice said, because “to be a competitive country, we need to educate our people for the jobs and skills of today. But also the very social fabric of our country is either increased by education — or diminished by it.”
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega.