Fourteen minutes and 50 seconds — by my count, that’s about how long the Democratic presidential candidates have spent talking about K-12 education over the last four debates.
Fourteen minutes and 50 seconds out of more than 12 hours of debates is not enough time to spend on a subject that affects 55 million students. Although our education system largely relies on decisions made at the state and local level, the president sets the tone and agenda for their party and wields significant influence over state leaders. With so many public schools that cannot keep up with our children’s needs, education reform deserves more time and attention on the national stage.
During the debates, most of the candidates’ ideas have centered on money: higher teachers’ salaries, more money for low-income schools, free college, and canceling student loan debts. But the kids they are trying to help won’t make it through high school if they are struggling to read and write in middle school.
Every student, no matter their race, ethnicity, or income level, should have access to a good education. But this isn’t only a money issue. The current debates are missing transformative ideas needed to help children learn. Where do candidates stand on universal vouchers, not tying school funding to property taxes, or reducing barriers to school choice and access to education?
School choice and innovation has made a dramatic impact on the lives of the children I work with: the low-income, minority students that many of the candidates claim their policies will help. It’s frustrating to hear one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, say, “Money for public schools should stay in public schools, not go anywhere else.”
But it is even more frustrating to watch Sen. Cory Booker, who has previously been a staunch supporter of school choice and vouchers as the mayor of Newark and was a board member of the Alliance for School Choice, remain silent.
In 2004, I created an all-refugee soccer team outside Atlanta. After one practice, I was helping one of my players, Lewis, a Sudanese refugee, with his homework. He had a headache and asked me to read to him to help him complete a project. This happened again and again. After the third time, I told him I had a headache and asked him to read. He looked up and said, “Coach, I can’t read.”
Lewis had been in this country for five years. He got As and Bs in school, but he couldn’t read. He was in the sixth grade. At first, I tried to work within the broken system to help him. When that didn’t work, I opened my own school for refugee students: Fugees Academy. It’s a zero-tuition private school with campuses in Ohio and Georgia that has helped hundreds of refugee kids change the course of their lives.
Some of our students arrive in this country functionally illiterate. Some arrive traumatized by the experience of fleeing their homes — I experienced this when I fled my native Jordan. Our students always arrive ready and willing to learn, we just needed to find the right way to teach them.
I have found that the best way to teach begins, and continues, outside the classroom. From day one, the center of Fugees Academy has been soccer. It’s a common language for our students, a way to learn teamwork and collaboration, and a way to work through the trauma they have experienced. We are also committed to helping families heal, integrate, and thrive. We do that by assisting with immigration paperwork, job applications, and access to healthcare.
In their first year at Fugees Academy, our students’ proficiency in math rose by 137%, and in reading, it rose 187%. When students feel safe and can focus on homework instead of hunger, great things can happen. Every one of our high school graduates has been accepted by into college.
Our school isn’t necessarily a template for every other, but it works for our students (who come from 22 ethnic groups). With the freedom to innovate and philanthropic support, we created a model to meet the needs of our students by learning from where their public schools failed. We spend less money to educate our students than our counterparts.
The Fugees Academy campus in Columbus, Ohio, is about 14 minutes from Otterbein University, where the Democratic debate was held this week. I invite any presidential candidate who wants to see first-hand the transformative model we use to teach our students and prepare them for success. If my kids were their kids, I think they would agree that traditional public schools don’t work for everyone, and we need bolder solutions, better leadership, and more choice to ensure all of our 55 million children have access to a good education.
This piece originally appeared at the Washington Examiner
Luma Mufleh is a 2019 Civil Society Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Mufleh is the inspirational founder and CEO of Fugees Family, Inc., the nation’s only school network dedicated to educating and empowering child survivors of war.
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