October 27, 2010
“Democracy will fail if the people are ignorant,” says Kevin P. Chavous, paraphrasing a Jeffersonian truism. Beyond his long career in Washington, DC politics (including 12 years as a city councilman and a 1998 mayoral run), Chavous now serves as a leading voice in the call for educational reform both locally and nationally. He is working with the Center for Education Reform (CER), the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and Serving Our Children, Inc. (SOC), among others. He was also a member of President Obama’s Education Policy Committee during the 2008 election campaign.
Full of character and passion, at times Chavous describes himself as “a little crazy,” yet he qualifies his craziness by his determination to do what’s best for District students. “I look at it in human terms…It’s not a Republican point of view, Democratic point of view. It’s not black or white…It’s just what’s best for these kids.”
Regarding the voucher program, he says, “Our view was, let’s take the kids from some of the most challenged neighborhoods, from failing schools and give them a shot.” He cites astounding drop-out rates around the nation, specifically among minorities. “Right now, we have over half the children of color in this country drop out of high school. In at least ten of our urban areas, 70 percent of the black boys in every high school drop out.”
Chavous sees where this trend leads. “It’s about the preservation of our Democracy,” he declares vehemently. Again referencing America’s founding fathers, he says “…the most critical component that they talked about was an educated population.” In his fight for education, Chavous quotes freely from various sources, including Dr. King (“The fierce urgency of now”) and Malcolm X (“By any means necessary”), to describe the need for quality education. “I’m pure on this issue of what’s best for kids,” he insists. “…I’m for home schooling. I’m for virtual schools, specialty schools, magnet schools, vouchers or scholarships, tax credits, charter schools, traditional schools, private schools, religious schools. All this stuff, I’m for, if it’s going to help a kid learn.”
His fervent stand raises the question about the District’s voucher program. In the spring of 2009, President Obama guided a gradual phase-out of the program, which was failing to gain Democratic support in Congress. While most studies of the 5-year pilot program that began in 2003 had shown at least slight academic improvements by those in the program, some questioned these findings, or pointed to factors that may have influenced the results. All sides — the right, the left, religious groups, teachers’ organizations, Congress and the White House — inflated or buried studies which supported or denied their views.
When the available information is weighed, arguments can be (and have been) made to demonstrate the program’s success or lack thereof with equal effectiveness. Clearly, information is available to endorse or condemn both sides of any plan of action.
The President acknowledged that vouchers had certainly helped many individual students and vowed that, though new students would not be granted scholarships unless Congress renewed the program, students within the program would continue to receive assistance through graduation. Indeed, Congress and the President did not renew the program.
President Obama and Democrats who are opponents of vouchers are accused of hypocrisy or blatant self-interest in the case of teachers’ unions. The President and his party counter by arguing that long-term goals take precedent over short-term successes. He contends that many studies supporting vouchers are flawed or biased, and that attempts to phase out voucher programs in a conscientious way have been ignored, misrepresented or thwarted. Teachers argue that public support of private schools harms public education, in the short and long-term analysis, by sending the best students to private schools and by diverting public funding from the public school system.
What is often not noted is that the administrators of the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF) – the organization that had been in charge of distributing the scholarships – was aware that the program would likely end prior to sending letters of acceptance to 216 families last year. These scholarships were retracted soon thereafter when the voucher program officially ended.
Many other organizations were offering scholarships before 2003 and will continue to do so in years to come. Subsequently, public and private institutions – including the schools themselves – will be saddled with the added expense of assisting those families to whom this opportunity was offered and then taken away.
Recently, Chavous, the foot soldier for children and education, wrote an open letter to the President expressing his anger at allowing the voucher program to end? “I’m less worried about the long-term implications of private schools and public-funded scholarships, because I think the house is on fire,” he says. “And when the house is on fire…you go in and you save who you can. And I’m not going to stop trying to save folk, [being]worried about whether or not I save everybody.” He likens the President, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Mayor Adrian Fenty and others to a crew or worker fixing a building, repairing the foundation and making it livable again. But, he contends that, “…when that house is on fire, I’m like the fireman.”
As is the case with many District residents, the mention of former public school chancellor Michelle Rhee evokes strong feelings from Chavous, who is support of Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson. Chavous insists, “I think Michelle Rhee’s done a great job. I think Kaya [Henderson] can help take things to another level. She has the same tenacity.” He sees previous education reform as “a top-down movement…an elitist-driven movement,” and hopes Henderson will continue the job of bringing concern about education to the families whom it matters to most.
“We’ve got to engage the end-user,” he says. “We’ve got to engage the parents and the families who are most affected by the policies that we promote, and I think that Kaya has that in her.” Citing studies that show that the US public education system is lagging behind other countries and falling short of its own standards, Chavous insists that the system’s foundation needs to be rebuilt. However, he admits that he does not have a clear picture of what the end-result will be. Chavous believes a revolution is brewing, but fears many do not understand the grave consequences of a failing educational system. “People have to experience their own internal revolution about the possibilities for change.” This has not yet been achieved, he says, because “we’re burdened by our demographics. We’re burdened by our political parties. We’re burdened by our historical, nostalgic view of what education is supposed to look like.”
The voucher program helped over 1,700 of the District’s students see brighter possibilities and futures, and Chavous is disappointed that the program ended. In addition to his disappointment, he is angry about the manner in which it was ended. However, other options exist, and Chavous notes his determination in a continued effort to work towards those goals, knowing that not all solutions will work in all circumstances. In some cities, charter schools have helped “jump-start the system to real change,” he says. In other places, vouchers and other programs may still offer the best solutions, until long-term change can come into effect.
Chavous champions innovation in education, stating that these long-term solutions will come “by freeing our minds, and then letting innovation creep in, and then picking the right tool in the tool-kit to put in place to help these kids.” Innovation, he argues, is the key. “We’ve got a lot of great teachers who feel frustrated and burdened by the system that’s around them. That system can work, but it has to be open to change.” For his own part, Chavous will keep doing all he can to bring about that change. “One thing I won’t do, though, is be muzzled,” he says passionately. “I won’t allow myself to compromise what I think is right based on politics, based on economics or based on what’s politically expedient.”
Although Chavous has no plans to run again for public office, he is often asked as he walks throughout the streets of Washington, DC. His service these days comes from following his passion, doing what he loves and fighting for what he believes in: the best education possible for the most children possible. “This is all doable,” he insists, “but frankly, more than being doable, it’s critically important to the survival of our country that we make it work.”