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Mr. President, Can We Repay Our 'Educational Debt'?

Ryan Kinser

In his first term, President Obama treated education issues like symptoms of an undiagnosed disease. His administration led our nation through initiatives to overhaul teacher evaluation, introduce new state standards to promote college/career readiness, and offer competitive funding opportunities for states to innovate. Each of these reforms was a Band-Aid approach that overlooked a fundamental issue: schools fail when communities fail. Our top students are still receiving an education on par with any in the world. It's just that not enough of our students have that opportunity.

Perhaps the bubbling cauldron of recent education issues can be reduced to this one focal point for the president and the federal government. Improve communities first. Schools and teachers will follow.

The president may not have much power to change collective bargaining rights, NCLB waiver ramifications, or the fallout of publicized teacher evaluations, but he absolutely can shift gears to salvage his policies. Why not veer from debates about teacher effectiveness (inherently a local issue) or school accountability and instructional standards (which should be state issues), and instead focus on equitable federal education funding?

Our new Common Core State Standards won't accomplish much if teachers like my colleague Renee Moore in the Mississippi Delta continue to face a dearth of resources unlike the relative windfall of options I have at an affluent Tampa magnet school. One of the key reasons nations like Finland and Singapore outperform us on international tests isn't because their students or teachers are smarter. It's because their support systems are better designed to combat poverty through equal opportunity, as Arthur Camins argues in The Washington Post more eloquently than I can in this space.

I would also invite President Obama to consult a few pages from Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools Now and in the Future. Why not see the school as a community hub providing stability so parents don't have to choose charter schools across town? Isn't that how we rebuild an economy and first-rate educational system—one neighborhood at a time?

I've taught in urban Washington, D.C., and now I teach at a school striving for International Baccalaureate certification. As a reverse-magnet program, my school buses students from dilapidated neighborhoods in the hopes of offering the same opportunities they might not get at home. But how does this approach strengthen the neighborhoods of our commuter students so they can experience their right to a quality education near their homes?

In her 2007 Urban Sites Network Conference speech, Gloria Ladson-Billings spoke about the "educational debt" our nation has accumulated. This is where I would urge President Obama to start his second term education agenda. Instead of letting states fight for the scraps of an overextended fiscal policy, I'd implore the president to take a closer look at how he can reallocate an education budget to level the playing field. I'll offer some concrete suggestions in my follow-up post.

Ryan Kinser is a teacherpreneur at the Center for Teaching Quality and teaches English at Walker Middle Magnet School for International Studies in Tampa, Fla.

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