During his time as a Washington, D.C. councilman, Wabash alumnus Kevin Chavous ’78 rolled up his sleeves to work on the District’s daunting public schools problem.
The attorney, author, and national school reform leader spoke to the Economic Club of Indiana Wednesday about why improving our education system should be the nation’s highest priority. And he didn’t pull any punches for the crowd of about 500 business, law, and education leaders.
“I will be honest and direct, and hopefully I will offend a few of you,” Chavous said at the start of his speech.
“Education is the most important issue facing all of us and facing us for years to come,” he said. “Public education is failing our children. By and large, we are not where we need to be and we’ve gotten noticeably worse.”
In particular, Chavous touched on the widening achievement gap between children of color and white children. He noted that 75 percent of African American boys drop out of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS).
Chavous said closing that gap was a moral imperative, but quickly talked about the public safety reasons for improving education, as well as the obvious economic gains that could be made in America if we had better, more accountable schools.
Reform starts with changing the system — the “work rules” and unions, Chavous said. “We must let teachers teach. We should make sure we allow work rules to be destroyed when they get in the way of educating children. We can fix this thing if we let the innovations take over and don’t let rules get in the way.
“If we don’t fix education in this country then we don’t fix America. No beaurocracy has reformed itself from within; it never has and never will.”
Chavous helped to shepherd the charter school movement into Washington. As the District Council’s education committee chairman, Chavous helped make the DC charter school movement the most prolific charter school jurisdiction in the country, with over 20% of DC's public school children attending charter schools.
Chavous, now a partner in the law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP, is the author of the book, Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education.
In his remarks at the Economic Club of Indiana, Chavous reminded the large crowd that very little has changed with our public school system since its establishment at the time of the industrial revolution.
“We have a moral imperative to act,” he claimed with urgency. “There should be outrage and shame — outrage and shame. We have this out-dated system built on one-size fits all model. We have the same classes and the same definition of classes we had in the 1870s.”
He pointed out that the typical 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day was designed to allow students in the late 1800s work in the fields before and after school, and work the fields during the summer growing seasons.
“We need to embrace innovations and technology,” Chavous added. “We need to be addressing the kids’ best interests and not the system’s best interests.”
As a councilman, Chavous assisted in shaping the District's three-sector education partnership with the federal government. That partnership led to $50 million in federal money for DC public schools, DC charter schools, and it funded the first federal scholarship program to allow 2,000 low-income children to attend private schools.
The latter program was rescinded by the Obama administration, which further outraged Chavous, who referred to himself as “a lifelong democrat” and member of Candidate Obama’s Education Policy Committee.
The scholarship program, which provided scholarship dollars to needy families and allowed them to select the schools their children attended, worked, Chavous said.
He has since worked with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to build a similar scholarship program in New Orleans. As a result of that legislation, nearly 1,000 students are now attending private schools of their choice in the New Orleans parish.
He is a Distinguished Fellow with the Center for Education Reform and serves on the board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. He also is a co-founder and Chair of Democrats for Education Reform and a founding member of the Education Equality Project.
During his visit to Indianapolis, Chavous also met with State Schools Superintendent Dr. Tony Bennett do discuss Bennett’s plans for the future of public education in Indiana.
Chavous is a native of Indianapolis, and was an All-American basketball player at Wabash. He was president of his graduating class at the Howard University School of Law.
Chavous’ speech to the Economic Club of Indiana will be rebroadcast on WFYI Radio on February 1.
Bottom Photo: Chavous poses with some Wabash friends — Daryl Johnson ’82, Retired Track Coach Rob Johnson, classmate Michael Stewart, and former Malcolm X Institute Director Horace Turner.