After the soaring rhetoric of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the 4,000 attendees of the National Charter Schools Conference received a dose of practical advice from former President Bill Clinton, winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the group this morning.
America had one charter school when Clinton took office and 2,000 when he left. Clinton said his advisers were dismayed when he insisted on talking about the unknown concept of charter schools on the campaign trail during his first run for office.
Yes, he told his campaign team. People don’t understand what a charter school is, but they do understand that America needs education change.
But rather than exhort the charter school advocates in the auditorium today to treat the movement as a civil rights cause as Mayor Booker had done a few minutes earlier, Clinton focused on more pragmatic paths, urging school leaders to consider job skills training in their schools, energy efficiencies in their buildings and nutrition and exercise programs for their students. He praised a program in New York City where students are painting flat black roofs white, a simple step that Clinton says will save energy and money.
Clinton urged a national movement to go into schools and make them more energy efficient, paying for the construction costs through utility bill savings. The campaign would help schools save money and put thousands of Americans back to work, he said.
“If you want to put America to work, making the physical structures of America more energy efficient is a very good thing to do,” he said. “It makes me sick to drive by these schools that are not open this summer vacation and people aren’t fixing them.”
The initiatives in his speech reflect some of the themes of Clinton’s post-presidential career and his own health wake-up call from 2004 bypass surgery for heart disease.
Ever the politician and ever the Democrat, Clinton also criticized the Republican health proposals that he said would only add to the costs to consumers.
He said the United States has been stymied by the deceit that government is bad. “The whole thing being pitched to us now, as it always has been, is that government is always a problem — if only we had less government the world would be a wonderful place,” he said. “Except when I need a college loan or I am losing my farm or there is a natural disaster or I want safe food and clean water.”
“People have given up on us because it looks like a food fight most of the time,” he said. “This is not about ideology. It is not about theology. It is about what we can do to give our kids a brighter tomorrow by putting our country back in the futures business.”
Clinton said that Congress is resisting 21st century changes, including the fact that “borders now look more like nets than walls.”
“Throughout our human history, success brings both complacency and an almost irrational desire to hold onto the present and, as a result of that, systems tend more and more to exist for the benefit of people in dominant positions than to advance the purposes for which they were established,” Clinton said.
The second destructive myth foisted on America, says Clinton, is that corporations are obligated only to the people in charge and the stockholders. In corporate law classes in law school, Clinton said he learned that corporations were responsible to all the stakeholders, including their employees and their communities.
When America bought into the notion that government is always a detriment and that corporations have no responsibility to communities, Clinton said, “We became a less successful country.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog