(Special to The Root) — In the day-to-day pre-election grind, it’s so easy to get bogged down in the 24-hour news cycle that we start to lose sight of what’s actually at stake in this presidential election. We simply can’t afford to do that this year, especially when two such different visions and plans for our country’s future are offered. The choice between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney truly will determine our nation’s future, and nowhere is the contrast more apparent than on the issue of education.
These are not hollow words for me. When I think of my own life story, I recognize that without education, I would not be walking the hallowed halls of Harvard today. I grew up in a working-class family in California, and I was the first in my family to graduate from high school.
Although I was the one who walked across the stage, there were many hands that helped guide me along the way. It would not have been possible without my family’s support; nor would it have been possible without the training, support and effort of great teachers in the public schools I attended. But I wasn’t done yet. Thanks to scholarships and people believing that I, too, deserved a chance at a great education, I attended Stanford and then Harvard Law.
Though my story is not the most unusual story ever told, it is still an exception rather than a rule. For too long, too many children in too many homes have been denied access to high-quality educational opportunities because they simply live in the wrong ZIP code.
The persistent achievement gap serves as a sobering reminder that in spite of all the political rhetoric about equality of opportunity, we have a long way to go before all American children are guaranteed the world-class education that they deserve. But our president realizes that this is not acceptable and that a high-quality education should not be a luxury.
In an effort to ensure that our young people do not fall behind before it’s too late, he has made historic investments in Head Start programs; he’s championed his administration’s Race to the Top program, which has already raised academic standards in 46 states; and recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, he has encouraged more-innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
Now let’s consider class size. The president understands that class sizes matter, so in an effort to make sure that our classrooms aren’t overcrowded, he has taken measures to protect top-quality teachers from layoffs.
The president’s commitment to a high-quality education doesn’t stop when a student graduates from high school. As someone who paid off his own student loans fairly recently, President Obama doesn’t want costs to be a barrier to higher education. To ensure that this isn’t the case, he has instituted a series of policies to make college more affordable for students and their parents.
His student-loan reforms have cut out the middlemen and invest in students instead of giving more money to the banks that don’t need it. Meanwhile, the $10,000 tax credit that he extended to families of college students helped more than 9 million students and families pay for college last year. He has doubled Pell Grant funding, increasing the number of students receiving grants from approximately 6 million to 10 million. And his administration has secured a $2.55 billion investment in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions across a 10-year period to ensure that more African Americans have access to higher education.
But that’s not all. President Obama is actively investing in community colleges to support education and career-training programs for students and workers. He has laid out a plan to forge new partnerships between community colleges and businesses to train 2 million workers for well-paying middle-class jobs that already exist in high-growth, high-demand industries like clean energy, health care and transportation.
At a certain point, any attempt to list all of the president’s education-related accomplishments starts to read like a laundry list. Ultimately, President Obama understands that a good education is an economic necessity, not a luxury; it’s the only surefire way to create good jobs and grow the middle class.
While all of these measures are steps in the right direction, the president has gone further and established the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans, which is designed to produce a more effective and comprehensive range of programs for African-American students from cradle to career.
Unfortunately, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan seem to have missed the memo. They would eliminate the president’s college tax credit — and slash Pell Grants for nearly 10 million students. To make matters worse, Romney’s plan would gut investments in education, leaving schools with fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms.
Romney has even gone so far as to admit that he believes class size doesn’t matter. But as any teacher in a classroom of 40 students will attest, class size does matter. It matters a lot.
These are the stakes, and they have never been higher. We cannot afford to let our children’s futures fall by the wayside. Do not underestimate the impact that your voice can have on our country’s future. If everyone commits to doing at least one thing to organize his or her community, the combined impact will ensure that President Obama can keep moving this country forward for another four years. Now is not the time to take chances with our children’s future.
Charles J. Ogletree is a professor at Harvard Law School, the founder of the school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and the author of numerous books on legal topics.