Why Education is Essential to Our Democracy

Since our first days, before we founded this country, education has been an American value. In Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, colonists recognized their collective responsibility to educate their children.

They wrote into law that children, both wealthy and poor, must be taught to read and write and to learn a skill — like blacksmithing, weaving, or shipbuilding — to secure their economic independence.

As democracy took root in early America, public education became not just an ideal, but an imperative.

An enlightened public, the founders believed, was essential to self-government.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that we must:

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.

Benjamin Franklin believed:

The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths.

With education, the common man would be able to select leaders wisely and fight back against the tyrannical instincts of those in power.

He would be able to understand, maintain, and protect his rights, so that government could not usurp authority and devolve into despotism.

In a country “in which the measures of Government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the Community as in our’s” George Washington explained, “knowledge … is proportionably essential.”

This set of beliefs represented a fundamental break from the aristocratic ways of the old world. A republic that was “for the people” and “by the people,” required an educated people.

With this new world also came a new conviction that individuals could determine their own future — that their birth or circumstance no longer limited their potential.

This foundational idea grew to become the American Dream: every child, regardless of whom her parents are or where she comes from, can receive an education and grow up to achieve a better life.

And over time, as our Republic became more and more democratic — as the right to vote and lead was extended to African-Americans and women — education became the fundamental means by which Americans sought to secure their liberty and their equality.

Perfecting our union by expanding education has not come without struggle. But, we have often succeeded because we have recognized the symbiotic relationship among the needs of our country and the success of individual Americans and our aspiration to move forward.

This included:

· the need for a universally literate work force in the 1830's and the creation of Horace Mann’s common school movement;

· the demand at the turn of the 20th century to replace out of date Latin schools with progressive high schools that prepared students for the emerging industrial work force;

· the challenge of providing World War II veterans with a career path and the creation of the GI Bill for college education; and

· the need to tear down the barriers of Jim Crow school systems in the 50's and 60's.

Too often, we confronted these challenges too late and at the tragic expense of our fellow American’s potential.

With all deliberate speed” has proven not fast enough, especially for children living in places like the Mississippi Delta and South Central Los Angeles.

At each of these turning points, we have asked for more from our public schools. To their credit, our educators — teachers, specialists, and principals — have risen to the challenge, many times much sooner than the rest of us.

They have helped us build a nation admired for our forward progress, opportunity, and equality. That’s the American ideal from our founding until today.


But, I come to the floor tonight with a sense of urgency because our generation is at risk of being the first American generation to leave less opportunity to our children than we inherited.

And if we do that, we will have broken a fundamental American promise to our children.

In our nation, education is supposed to be at the heart of opportunity. But today, our education system fails far too many kids.

Schools that once were engines of opportunity and democracy are now too often traps for inter-generational poverty.

As a result, only 3 out of 10 children born to very low income families in the United States will make it into the middle quintile or higher; only four out of 100 will make it to the top 20%.

Already, the United States has less social mobility than at least 12 other developed countries — among them Canada, Japan, and Germany.

In America, children growing up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by kindergarten. In fourth grade, only 1 in 4 is proficient in math and less than that can read at grade level; and as few as 9 will receive a bachelors degree by age 25.

And, as a nation, we are falling behind the rest of the world. American 15-year-olds score lower than their peers in 14 countries in reading, 36 countries in math, and 18 in science.

Much of the rest of the developed and developing world is figuring out how to produce more and more educated citizens, while the United States is standing still and, therefore, falling behind.

We must refuse to accept outcomes that are a tragedy for our children, a threat to our economy, and an immeasurable risk to our democracy.

To make change, we need to stop treating America’s children as if they belong to someone else.

To meet our children’s needs, we must invent a 21st century approach to education — a system for the delivery of free, high-quality education built for the future, not for the past.

We must have the courage to shed old ways of thinking, abandon commitments to outdated approaches, and explore new ideas.

This re-envisioned system must focus on what is best for our kids, not what is convenient for adults.

It must be comprehensive and integrated from early childhood to post-secondary education.

A 21st century system of public education must set high expectations, demand rigor, and create meaningful accountability.

This system must embrace different kinds of schools and create a culture that is focused on continuously learning from each other — among traditional, charter and innovation schools, and across districts, cities, and states.

We need to change fundamentally how we prepare, recruit, place, train, retain, and pay teachers and school leaders.

This system should embrace technology and personalized learning.

We must create space for innovation and school autonomy. And we must also provide choice to parents and kids.

But, our goal is not and should not be school choice for choice’s sake. For a youngster in a low-income family, there’s no difference between being forced to attend a lousy school, and being given the chance to “choose” among five lousy schools.

That’s no choice at all. It’s certainly not a meaningful one.

The goal is and must be to offer high-quality education at every public school, so that parents can choose among great schools in their neighborhood.

We must refuse to accept the false choice that you either support school choice — in whatever form — or defend the status quo.

Just as we must reject the idea that you cannot support public schools and advocate for change.

This old rhetoric and manufactured political division will not work for our kids. We need to rise above the narrow, small politics that consume our attention and permit us to avoid making tough choices.

Instead, we must recognize that a 21st century education can and should look different. And, no matter what approach or method of delivery, it must be high-quality.

The good news is we know it’s possible to reverse course and create meaningful change. Several cities around the country have already begun creating road maps to this 21st century approach.

Denver is one of them.

In Denver, we made a deal: create a public choice system that authorizes charters, creates innovation schools, and strengthens traditional schools.

We empowered schools through autonomy and worked to create a culture of shared learning and innovation focused on all ships rising.

We demanded quality and implemented strong accountability. High performing schools were rewarded, replicated and expanded. Low performing schools had to improve or be shut down.

We made tough decisions. We closed schools. I sat in living rooms and classrooms and gymnasiums with parents urging them to demand more from the school district, even if it meant their child had to go to a different school.

Along with concerned citizens, teachers, and principals, I went door to door to enroll kids in new schools.

Denver created innovative teacher and school leadership policies. We tried to rethink the tired model of the last century and create a new career for this one.

That’s why today in Denver you will find teachers teaching other teachers (and being paid for it), knowing that their job is not only to educate their students but to improve the honorable craft of teaching.

We used the levers of federal law, strong accountability, and civil rights protections as the backbone of change. We could not have made the changes we did had it not been for the national demand for improvement in our schools.

And the courage of our community to demand something better for our children.

Denver has seen the results of hard work.

Over the last decade, Denver Public Schools students’ academic growth increased faster than the state’s in both math and English.

This outcome was achieved by students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch and students not qualifying. Latino and African American students’ achievement in English and math grew faster than their counterparts’ throughout the state.

61 percent more students graduated in the 2016 school year than in 2006. The overall on time graduation rate increased almost 30 points and the on time graduation rate for Latino students has doubled since 2007.

Denver Public Schools Enrollment 2001–2015

And since 2006, Denver Public Schools enrollment has increased more than 25 percent, making it the fastest growing urban school district in America.

We still have a lot of work to do, but cities like Denver are moving in the right direction.

Now, we need to move a nation in the right direction.


Tonight, as we stand here in this marble chamber among these statues that tie us to our past, I am thinking of our future.

I am thinking of the millions of poor children across time zones our founders could not have imagined, heading home after a long day at school, shifting their backpacks of books to find a comfortable spot, sharpening pencils for math and pastels for art, clearing a space on a busy dinner table for homework.

I’m thinking about children teaching other children, older brothers and sisters teaching their younger siblings, expecting they will have more opportunity than their parents.

I’m remembering the naturalization ceremony I attended on Friday at Dunn Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Kara Roth’s fifth grade class welcomed 26 new Americans from 13 countries to the United States.

I’m thinking about teachers and principals and specialists who are up tonight, planning for tomorrow, and hoping for a future that allows them to review at home (before they teach tomorrow) the best lessons for teaching the productive and destructive forces of volcanoes, what Scout learns in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the mathematical reasoning that calls on us to invert the second fraction when we divide.

And I’m imagining a country that fulfills our generational responsibility by providing quality early childhood education to every American family who wants it; a K-12 school for every child that every Senator would be proud to send his or her child or grandchild; and access to college and skills training that prepares students for economic success without shackling them to a lifetime of debt.


All of which leads me to comment briefly on President Trump’s nomination for Education Secretary.

I have no doubt that Betsy DeVos sincerely cares about children, and it is not her fault that President Trump nominated her.

So, let me be clear, I am addressing the President and not Mrs. DeVos when I say this nomination is an insult to school children and their families, to teachers and principals, and to communities fighting to improve their public schools.

Even with the limited questioning allowed at the education committee hearing, it quickly became clear that Mrs. DeVos lacks the experience and the understanding to be an effective Secretary of Education.

The bipartisan progress achieved over the last 15 years of American education was predicated on a deep commitment to three principles: transparency, accountability, and equity.

Mrs. DeVos’s testimony and public record fail to establish her commitment or competence to protect any of these foundational principles.

Her “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach asks American school children to take a huge step backward — to a world without the high expectations and transparency that we need to give parents and taxpayers the information they deserve on how our schools are performing.

Those high expectations paired with a clear commitment to accountability ensure that our successful schools should be replicated, and our struggling schools should be held accountable for improvement — regardless of whether it is a choice school or a district school.

Finally, we know the Secretary of Education holds the sacred job of ensuring that every child in America gets the resources and the supports they deserve regardless of their income, background, or educational needs. This commitment to equity is at the core of Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Mrs. DeVos has shown no evidence of her commitment to be the torch bearer for both excellence and equity. Her ideology and dogmatic approach communicates a lack of understanding and appreciation of the challenges we face and the depth of solutions they demand.

A commitment to choice without a commitment to quality serves ideology rather than improvement, and a commitment to competition without a commitment to equity would forsake our democratic ideal that a free high quality public education must open the doors of opportunity to all.

For the first generation of students to whom that promise feels elusive, they deserve an Education Secretary who has the courage, competence, and commitment to orient our mighty education system to build opportunity for all.

Mrs. DeVos shows none of those skills, and our young people cannot afford to wait four years for their chance at the American Dream.

Millions of Americans recognize this, which is why this nomination has generated more controversy than any other.

I look forward to working with anyone, as I have over the years — including even Mrs. DeVos — who is interested in improving our children’s opportunities and taking seriously the future of our democracy. But I will not support her nomination.

I will vote no on this nomination and urge my colleagues to do the same.

As prepared for delivery on the Senate floor on February 6, 2017, during the Senate’s consideration of President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.

Senator Michael Bennet

Written by

U.S. Senator for Colorado

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