Michael Bennet, currently a United States Senator, a member of the greatest deliberative body in the history of the world, has a great job.
In a recent interview with David Axelrod, on Axelrod's podcast The Axe Files, he said, “That will be the best job I have in my life.” But he wasn't talking about being a senator. He was talking about being Superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
Why will that be the best job he ever has?
"That fight is so worth winning."
The fight he's talking about is the fight to give every kid a high quality education.
I don't know a lot about Bennet's tenure as superintendent of schools in Denver, but it was fascinating to hear him talk about it with Axelrod. More than anything, Bennet is thoughtful. There were several moments when he paused so long before answering a question that I had to check my phone to make sure I didn't accidentally press pause myself. He appreciates nuance. He gets that this stuff -- education, politics, government -- is complicated.
Bennet is a solutions-oriented pragmatist who understands that compromising to get things done doesn't mean and shouldn't mean compromising your values. He, as much as any other senator, is trying to hold this country's government together. He spoke passionately about the people who risk losing their health care over a political fight in DC and about undocumented kids being used as political props. If there were 100 -- or even 51 -- Michael Bennets in Washington, you can bet that we would have addressed these challenges by now, and not in a partisan, zero-sum way.
Listening to him talk about being Superintendent was fascinating. He loved that job, and his skill set was such a good match. When Axelrod asked him why he thinks he was appointed to the United States Senate (he was seen as a massive underdog for the position; he had zero elected experience), he said that he thought part of it was that Governor Bill Ritter saw him at difficult meetings while he was superintendent, and thought his skill in navigating those difficult conversations would be valuable as a Senator. Governor Ritter was, of course, right.
While he was superintendent, the district decided to close down some schools. These were challenging meetings, to say the least.
In 2010, I went to a town hall meeting hosted by then-Congressman David Wu, my congressman at the time. It was insane. People were livid, chanting about death panels, holding signs with racist caricatures of President Obama, screaming personal attacks at the congressman. No fruitful conversation or discussion can be had in a setting like that. This was the height of the Tea Party movement, when anger was the dominant emotion in American politics. These Tea Party town halls, Bennet says, were nothing compared to school closing meetings.
"The best school closing meeting I ever had with parents was a thousand times worse than the worst Tea Party town hall meeting I ever had," he said.
Parents were furious, and rightfully so. After all, the schools were being closed not because anything they or their kids did wrong. Their expectations for what their kids' education would look like were being shattered because the district failed to do its job, according to Bennet. And he was the guy at the top; the buck stopped with him.
Denver has made a lot of progress since Bennet started the best job he'll ever had. All the schools that were closed are not back open. The leaders of the district, according to Bennet, will now "tell you their job isn’t to keep the system the same, their job is to change the system." If you believe in continuous improvement, that's the right attitude.
One other thing that Bennet said struck me. Axelrod made the observation, which is becoming increasingly popular, that not all kids have to go to college, and maybe we're making a mistake by setting this expectation of going to college as the only way to achieve social mobility. Some students are a better fit in vocational programs than a traditional university, people argue. I think most of us agree that Axelrod is right at some level. College isn't the best option for every kid, Axelrod was saying.
Bennet's response, however, was characteristically thoughtful. "Not always, but sometimes people make that observation about college when they’re talking about someone else’s kids — not their kids."
Of course, Bennet is right, too. Which policymakers and reformers advocating for expanded vocational programs in lieu of college want their kids to go to pass on a college degree in favor of a technical certification? That's not to say they're wrong -- just that it's important to remember and acknowledge that bias. That's the central question -- whose kids are we talking about?
It's true that not every student will succeed in college, but if we start funneling low income kids into vocational training instead of college, then we're only further institutionalizing the consequences of the opportunity gap, a gap that is already expanding and doesn't need extra help from policymakers to get worse. There is already a tragic phenomenon of smart, qualified low income students not applying to elite schools. If we're going to address the problem of getting the "right" kids to vocational training programs, we ought to make sure that the "right" kids, who are qualified for a top-tier post-secondary education, are getting the shot they deserve, too.