Education reform, a traditionally contentious policy issues in America, is one that has gotten short shrift in the current race for the White House.
A 2016 campaign largely defined by economic anxiety, immigration and fears of terrorism has devoted little illumination to the state of public education, which by many indications could use the attention. Just this week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress issued a dismal report that showed most U.S. high school seniors aren't prepared for college or a career.
This lamentable state of affairs is one that animates the schools choice movement, and charter school advocates such as Shavar Jeffries. The Newark native, Columbia-trained civil rights lawyer and a self-described progressive is one of a small and rare cadre of Democrats tilting against party orthodoxy by pushing to develop charter schools. These are free public schools that are run independently, set their own performance goals and methods, but do so without union-organized teachers and administrators.
In a recent interview with CNBC, Jeffries expressed frustration over the "muted" political conversation about deteriorating primary and secondary education quality. He argued increasing school choice was crucial to solving the seemingly intractable income gap problem, particularly among black and Latino students trapped in failing public schools.
"It's not just a winning policy issue, it's a winning political issue," said Jeffries, who lost a campaign for mayor of Newark in 2014 and who now heads the charter advocacy organization called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), an advocacy group that lobbies other Democrats for educational reform.
The group's budget, which Jeffries pegged at $12-15 million per year, is supported through private contributions. That sum, however, is dwarfed by the resources of largest U.S. teachers unions, whose annual budgets run in the hundreds of millions and are supported by member dues. Jeffries told CNBC that most charters were publicly funded, though some have obtained support from Wall Street, hedge funds and technology companies.
Citing broad support among black and Latino students, Jeffries said school choice would "help ensure children are ready for the 21st century economy" with better educational and employment opportunities. He added that those concerned about growing inequality should pay more attention to K-12 schooling.
"I don't know how we're talking about income inequality and not talking about education," DFER's Jeffries said. "Fundamentally, for workers to get a higher share of wages, we have to increase their skill level."