The 2020 Election and the World Our Students Deserve

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Adolfo Valle

Adolfo Valle

About a month ago, on an early Monday morning, Jose De la Cruz-Espinosa was parked in front of his Milwaukee home with his wife and three daughters, ages 14, 13, and 11. The family was getting ready to go to school when their car was suddenly surrounded by immigration agents and police.

The officers didn’t have a warrant and De la Cruz-Espinosa wouldn’t let them into the car. But they reached through an open window, unlocked the door, and tore him away from his family. In video of the arrest, you can hear his daughters crying out for him.

“My daughters don’t understand any of this, and it hurts me so much when I think of them in the car screaming for their daddy, unable to hug him goodbye, as he was taken from our lives,” said his wife, Kristine De la Cruz, who is a U.S. citizen. “My daughter had a breakdown in school yesterday. How are they supposed to process the trauma of our family being separated?”

This horror is an everyday reality in Trump’s America — and it’s only one of the many tentacles of his disastrous presidency.

Trump’s racism, misogyny, and hatred have fueled an extreme right-wing agenda where the truth is fake news, climate change is a hoax, immigrants and refugees are rapists and murderers, lies and corruption are commonplace, and deadly white nationalist violence and rhetoric have been normalized.

It is with sadness and anger, and without a shred of hyperbole, that we acknowledge that inside and outside of our classrooms we are fighting for our lives, for our families, for our neighbors, and for our futures. Defeating Trump and the emboldened right in the 2020 election is an essential task for social justice educators everywhere.

At the same time, we should have no illusions about our undemocratic elections, which are, more often than not, carnivals of distraction and disenfranchisement. With rampant voter suppression, a two-party chokehold, corporate media bias, bottomless pits of campaign cash, extreme gerrymandering, and an electoral college system that doesn’t even guarantee that the person who gets the most votes wins, our presidential elections are most often orchestrated ratifications of existing power rather than exercises in self-governance or expressions of popular will.

But there is also hope in this moment, and we must rise together to seize it — at the ballot box, on the picket line, in our communities, and in the streets — to defeat the march of fascism and white nationalism that Trump and his supporting cast of sycophants, enablers, and Republicans have encouraged.

Through work in our unions, in our community organizations, and through social movements, we can and must inject democratic and anti-racist goals into an electoral process designed to marginalize and exclude those without power. And we must contest for that power by supporting progressive candidates everywhere — whether they are running for school boards, state legislatures, or seats in Congress — who build bridges between electoral campaigns and the social movements that give them real capacity to make meaningful change.

This presidential election arrives at the crossroads of dramatically different political futures: two roads before us that can either take us as a country further down the road of division and hatred, or have us shift course radically to a hopeful vision of the future.

The first path is the terrifying possibility that Trump is reelected and the far-right movement he has empowered continues to grow.

Trump’s disastrous reign has exposed the weaknesses of the “checks and balances” and hallowed “democratic” institutions mythologized in school textbooks. One example, among many, is how Trump has packed the federal judiciary with reactionary white men who refuse to support Brown v. Board of Education. We will struggle with the consequences for decades. And while we would welcome Trump’s swift removal from office, neither impeachment nor a presidential campaign will repair these fundamental weaknesses. They remain urgent reasons we cannot leave the system to its own designs.

We must intervene with an overwhelming popular mobilization that can impose its will on institutions that have repeatedly failed us and effectively paved the way to Trump.

Such a popular mobilization is the key to opening the door to the second path in the political crossroads before us, one where the election of progressive leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib connects electoral politics to growing social movements that have the potential to reshape the political landscape for education and beyond.

In the current presidential campaign, that second political road is represented by the insurgent success of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and the real possibility that the next president of the United States can herald a progressive awakening. And while there are important differences between the two candidates that should be discussed and debated as the primary race continues, they both represent a very different alternative in the Oval Office than any other in recent memory.

We should have no illusions that a Sanders or Warren victory alone will secure the changes we need to avoid catastrophe. While we urgently want to see Republicans suffer a crushing defeat in 2020, the most hopeful resistance to Trump and the wave of reaction he represents has been and will continue to be the central role that mass mobilizations, social movements, and protests have played in building solidarity across struggles and holding out hope that another world is possible.

From the Women’s March to the airport protests, the Fight for $15 to Medicare for All, heroic efforts to expose and reverse Trump’s war on immigrant families and communities of color to Black Lives Matter and the struggle against white supremacy, and youth-led mobilizations against gun violence and for climate justice, popular resistance under Trump and the building of social movements have kept alive the most hopeful legacies of U.S. history.

These social movements are also providing the grassroots energy behind the growing number of successful local and congressional campaigns that represent a real shift to the left and have laid the groundwork for the possibility of a successful Sanders or Warren presidential campaign. For the first time in many years, the views of millions who have been systematically excluded from mainstream media and political life are finding some voice and representation in national political debate.

The wave of teacher strikes and protests is another critical part of these mobilizations and the rise of a progressive political alternative. Nearly 400,000 teachers and education workers walked off the job last year and, as Eric Blanc writes in Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, “underscored the immense potential for mass working-class politics.” It’s no wonder that the occupation topping the list of Sanders donors is teachers.

This wave of strikes and the growing resistance to school privatization by educators and community organizations has transformed the landscape of debate within the Democratic Party over education “reform.” Democratic candidates have become so fearful of being seen as soft on charters and privatization that they’re rethinking their entire education platforms and public discourse about it.

For example, Cory Booker, who at the 2008 Democratic Party convention in Denver, heralded the arrival of the newly formed “Democrats for Education Reform,” which previewed the pro-charter, pro-testing, teacher-bashing policies of the Obama/Biden administration, has been forced to distance himself from his own past.

During an endorsement interview with the Working Families Party, Ingrid Walker-Henry of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association asked Booker: “You’ve been a staunch supporter of voucher and charter schools that’s systematically siphoning public tax dollars, funding, and resources from public schools. You served with Betsy DeVos on the board of the Alliance for School Choice. . . . Will you say you’ve been wrong? And renounce your public support for charters?”

Booker, who as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, worked with Republican Governor Chris Christie to make the city “the charter capital of the nation,” spent the next six minutes telling Walker-Henry how much he supports public schools and how different he is from DeVos.

Teachers know more than most the consequences of bipartisan centrist corporate politics. Going back to the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and the bipartisan passage of the now-infamous No Child Left Behind Act, teachers have seen bipartisan centrist reform usher in more than a decade of test-driven privatization of our underfunded public schools.
NCLB was not only a tremendous failure that did extreme damage to public education, it also set the stage for corporate reform to make deeper inroads into the Democratic Party.

When Obama was elected, public education advocates hoped to see a transformation of federal education policy, but his appointment of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the administration’s commitment to the test-driven privatization of Race to the Top ended with disastrous effects and served as an important reminder that corporate Democrats can threaten the survival of public education as readily as Republicans.

More than two decades of this bipartisan, corporate “reform” and the massive underfunding and erosion of public education left teachers and their unions battered and demoralized. Such corrupt corporate centrism is represented in this presidential campaign season by Joe Biden, who if nominated could pave the way for Trump’s reelection in similar fashion to Hillary Clinton’s corrupt centrism in 2016.

People — especially educators — are hungry for real alternatives. In recent years, teachers, parents, and students have fought back in profound and transformative ways that have the potential to create a powerful movement to transform our schools and build deep solidarity across issues and movements. And a real alternative could lead to profound changes for our schools and communities.

An administration that is good for our public schools and communities could enact progressive policies both specific to education — for example, a moratorium on federal aid for charter schools and an end to using publicly funded vouchers and tax credit schemes for private schools — as well as broader progressive measures like the legalization of all public workers to strike, and a federal jobs program and deep investment in national infrastructure to not only repair and rebuild the nation’s crumbling schools, but to also transform them into green, sustainable buildings and playgrounds and keep them in good shape.

An administration that is good for our public schools and communities could increase civil rights protections for our most vulnerable students, including transgender students and immigrants and refugees, significantly raise teacher pay, and fully fund special education and universal pre-K, starting with 3-year-olds. It would use federal funds to leverage dramatic changes in inequitable state funding systems while also moving massive sums of resources away from the military to human needs. It also would renew national efforts to dismantle the poverty and segregation that remain the central problems in public education.

Despite all the undeniable reasons for despair and outrage in the Trump era, it’s also possible to see the outlines of the path to a better future. As this editorial is being written, the United Auto Workers and the Chicago Teachers Union are mounting game-changing labor struggles, a youth-led climate justice movement has injected urgency into our biggest global challenge, powerful movements for women’s and LBGTQ+ rights are permanent fixtures of U.S. political life, explicit challenges to the legacy of white supremacy are contesting everything from the statues in our parks to the prison-industrial complex to our electoral system. Progressive options that were once declared off-limits now set the terms of campaign debates.Ê

The central tasks of the 2020 campaign are to defeat Trump and to strengthen the impact of grassroots social movements on the U.S. political system. If we pursue these goals with energy, hope, and passion, we will win a chance to build the world our students deserve.