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Why I’m Joining StudentsFirst

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By Jovan Agee

As a parent and proud Californian, I am passionate about education. There are few causes more righteous than ensuring that all students are acquiring the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in life.

That’s why I am proud to be joining StudentsFirst California as the organization’s State Director, beginning this week.

It’s no secret that education policy discussions are often polarized—and it’s not surprising, given how much is at stake. But amidst the conflict and the name-calling, we should not forget the fundamental belief upon which we all agree: California needs an education system that serves all kids—no matter the color of their skin, where they live, or how much money they have.

If we can have honest conversations about where we have fallen short, I believe we can work together to implement reforms that can make a real difference for kids.

I’ve experienced firsthand how providing a proper education for your kids isn’t as simple as it seems. My wife and I spent years struggling to find the right school for my youngest son. He has bounced between a traditional public school, a private school, and a charter school; it was so difficult to find the right fit.

My wife and I are well-educated and involved parents, and we still had trouble. It’s scary to think about what would have happened if we didn’t have the time or information to make those crucial decisions about my son’s education.

It shouldn’t be that difficult to find a learning environment for a child where he or she can excel. Yet here in California, 65 percent of black third graders – kids who are already a fourth of the way through their public school career – can’t read at grade level. By the time these students are juniors in high school, only 32 percent of them will be proficient or above in English-Language Arts. The dropout rate among African American students is 22 percent; that means that, in a first-grade classroom of 32 black children, seven of them won’t walk across the stage come graduation day.

That’s simply unacceptable. And we have to work together to help fix that.

Some people may find it strange that I am working for StudentsFirst, given my professional background. I have spent the last decade working for the United Domestic Workers/American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 3930—a prominent union that is part of the AFL-CIO. Since some of StudentsFirst’s detractors claim that we are anti-union, it may appear that I have “switched sides.”

I don’t see it that way. As State Director, I will make efforts to work with teachers’ unions, associations representing administrators and school boards. But to be clear: I firmly believe that, at times, what is best for the student may conflict with what ultimately is best for these organizations.

The problem is that we rarely have conversations about what that means for our kids. Especially in education, we frequently resort to oversimplification and name-calling. Instead of talking seriously about how to ensure that our system serves all students, the rhetoric turns to personal attacks and useless competitions. Charter schools versus traditional public schools. Reformers versus unions.

When organizations have to focus on defending themselves against spurious accusations and correcting misinformation, there is little time to have the conversations that truly matter. And our students are paying the price.

I look forward to working with Californians across the state to build the education system our students deserve. Before we do that, we need to promise to take a step back, honestly assess where we are falling short, and pledge that we will work together to take action.

Who’s with me?

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