Sharpton and Klein, Education's Odd Couple

Their new Education Equality Project aims to fix the nation's most troubled schools.

By + More

There they were, standing next to each other in a room full of television cameras and reporters, about to announce their recent engagement: New York City public schools chancellor Joel Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton, two men who have clashed on issues of education equity and access in the past, now announcing that they will work together to fix the nation's troubled schools. Call us the odd couple, Klein said. Or the necessary couple, Sharpton quipped moments later. Both men were in Washington, D.C., this week to kick off a campaign to make education a top priority during the general election and beyond. Together, they will spearhead the Education Equality Project, a new coalition of elected officials, civil rights leaders, and education reformers.

Not to be snide, but how many new coalitions and campaigns do we need to get the presidential candidates to talk about education? There's the Ed in 08 crowd, Colin Powell and his America's Promise Alliance campaign to raise graduation rates, and other groups that have emerged in the past year. They all promised to start a national dialogue about the most pressing issues in education, mostly centered on closing the achievement gap between white and minority children. So far, the results have been disappointing. U.S. News has addressed why it has been difficult to get the candidates to talk about education. Sharpton and Klein were asked the same question this week. Sharpton, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004, answered that candidates running for office are often beholden to special interests. "Kids don't vote," he said matter-of-factly.

Sharpton's new role as leader of a group that includes controversial school reformers is somewhat perplexing. He has been known to support causes that have been at odds with the more radical reforms in education, including those introduced by Klein. Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. public schools, one of the worst-performing districts in the country, stood with Sharpton this week and talked about the need to make teachers more accountable for student outcomes, which includes tying teacher performance to test scores. Klein added: "We need to be bold enough to make sure that those who are not right for our classrooms are not teaching." Such statements are anathema to teachers unions. Incidentally, union leaders are nowhere to be found in the Sharpton and Klein coalition. Sharpton said in an interview that he plans to meet with Randi Weingarten, the presumed president of the American Federation of Teachers, and extend her an invitation to join.

All of this raises the question: How did Klein and Sharpton become the odd couple? Sharpton said he was moved to action by data showing high dropout rates among black and Latino children—the same data that Klein uses to make the case for fast-paced reform. The civil rights leader was also impressed that Klein accepted his invitation to attend an event he organized in April to mark the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. The two men subsequently had a series of conversations that eventually led to the idea of working together and forming the Education Equality Project. Now, instead of sparring with each other, this odd but perhaps necessary couple will fight to get the presidential candidates to address education. We wish them happiness and much luck.

Sharpton, Al