Education Messaging


Public education is under attack from conservatives who are, essentially, promoting a corporate takeover of public schools. To push back, you need to understand where voters stand on K-12 education issues. According to the Gallup poll:

On standardized testing: Only 22 percent of Americans believe increased testing in the public schools have helped school performance. Thirty-six percent say it has hurt schools and 41 percent think it’s made no difference. Fifty-eight percent oppose linking teacher evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. The public is simply not on the testing bandwagon.

On charter schools and vouchers: Two-thirds express support for charter schools, but surveys of parents show that what they want for their children is “a good quality neighborhood public school” (68 percent) much more than “more choices of which schools I can send my children to” (24 percent). Seventy-six percent of parents oppose spending on charters that comes at the expense of traditional public schools. Seventy percent of Americans flatly oppose private school vouchers.

On trust in teachers: By a margin of 3-to-1, Americans trust public school teachers. Many other polls show that teachers are among the most trusted of all professionals. Teachers are substantially more trusted than police, judges and clergy, and trusted three times more than bankers, lawyers and business executives.

On the quality of schools: When asked to grade schools “A, B, C, D or Fail,” only 18 percent say that public schools nationally deserve an A or B. Among the same Americans, 53 percent believe public schools in their own communities deserve an A or B. And among Americans with a child in school, 71 percent would give the school an A or B.

Because Americans like and trust their local schools and teachers, and because voters generally care more about how policies affect their own communities, you should lean heavily on arguments based on how an education policy will impact local schools and schoolchildren.

Say . . .

For our families and our communities, we need public schools that provide each and every child the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life. But to accomplish that, we should recognize there are no standardized children; every child has different strengths and weaknesses. That’s why our schools must offer a complete curriculum provided by professional teachers who have the training to give the individualized attention every child needs. 

Why . . .

The monologue above uses four strategies that should be employed in any discussion of education.

(1)   Focus on the listener’s own children and neighborhood schools rather than education in the abstract.

(2)   Indirectly push back against the overuse of standardized tests and teaching-to-the-test by explicitly pointing out something that every parent knows—every child is different and requires individualized attention.

(3)   Change the narrative about school quality from average test scores to how well our schools provide each and every student the opportunity to learn and excel.

(4)   Insist that only professional teachers, rather than amateurs or computer programs, have the knowledge and skills to do the job right.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

The nation’s schools

High-poverty schools

Failing schools, failing teachers

Soft bigotry of low expectations

Student achievement

Our children, local schools, schools in our community

Opportunity to learn, to succeed

The American Dream

Teaching-to-the-test, one-size-fits-all

Each and every child is different, is unique, is an individual

Professional teacher; teaching profession

Why . . .

Our progressive goal is to offer high-quality public schools that provide each and every child the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life. The American value behind public education is equal opportunity for all.

Instead of addressing the problem that too many children are denied an equal opportunity to learn, the right wing tries to exacerbate it with vouchers, or as they call them, opportunity scholarships. Their strategy is take advantage of the fact that Americans believe public schools outside their own communities are failing and, instead of fixing them, offer vouchers to enable individual students to escape. The political point of vouchers is to set some parents against others.

The right wing also appeals to Americans’ fervent belief in the market system and urges that parents be treated as consumers and schools be run like corporations. But schools are not businesses, teachers are not factory workers, and students are most certainly not products for sale. After more than a decade of right wing education policy, there is still no evidence that any of their proposals actually benefit schoolchildren.

The major difference between the partisans on education is that progressives accept responsibility for improving our public schools while conservatives want to abandon them. That’s how we distinguish our positions in public debate. For example, say you are arguing against larger class sizes:

Say . . .

Each and every child in our community deserves the opportunity to grow up to live a successful life. So every child needs excellent schools and professional teachers. Smaller class sizes help children learn because they allow teachers to spend more one-on-one time with each student, providing the individualized instruction they need. My opponent’s education policies would help only a few students and abandon the rest. I guarantee you, I won’t give up on the American Dream for any of our kids.

Why . . .

Whatever your progressive solution—whether it’s smaller class sizes, modernized school facilities and equipment, programs to attract and retain excellent teachers, a broader and richer curriculum—press the underlying value of equal opportunity. And also focus on what’s best for “each and every child,” which our listeners hear as their own child or grandchild. If your solution is more resources for public schools, specify how you’d use the money: “for art, music, science labs, technology—what every child needs to succeed.”

Finally, don’t repeat the anti-teacher and anti-child message frames. They do not support progressive arguments.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

School “reform”

Run schools like businesses

Achievement gap

There’s a “crisis”

Each child deserves an excellent education, personalized instruction

Opportunity gap


Why . . .

Our nation’s future is on the line. Progressives need to re-take the moral high ground on public education. A little smart message framing can make a real difference.

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