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OpEd: Why Is DeRay Getting a Bad Rap on Education?

The Baltimore City mayoral candidate may not be the savior on education, but many of the criticisms of the educator turned activist are curiously off base.
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Honoree, Activist and Organizer We The Protesters Deray McKesson attends the LinkedIn Next Wave Event at The Empire State Building on September 9, 2015 in New York City. Joe Kohen

The Baltimore City mayoral candidate may not be the savior on education, but many of the current criticisms of the educator turned activist are curiously off base.

From the moment that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson announced that he and his blue vest would foray into the Baltimore mayoral race, there has been both conversation and criticism abound—particularly in the area of education.

Many have puzzlingly argued that Mckesson’s link to Teach For America should be cause for alarm or somehow make him a less deserving candidate. Without discussing the other merits of his campaign, if there is a weak point of Mckesson’s campaign, it isn’t on education and most of the specious critiques seem to be coming from some dubious sources and are being promulgated by folks who haven’t taken the time to familiarize themselves with the facts.

So, let’s set the record straight, shall we?

DeRay Mckesson speaks at the GLAAD Gala at the Hilton San Francisco on November 7, 2015 in San Francisco, California.Kimberly White / Getty Images for GLAAD

First off, in full disclosure, I, like DeRay and countless other educators, have an affiliation with TFA. I worked on staff for two years and am extremely proud of the work we did together in my native Oakland. I will candidly state that every aspect of my experiences with TFA have not always been positive. Still, I don’t think that disqualifies me from speaking objectively about an education agenda using reason and facts.

Now looking at those facts, DeRay hasn’t hidden his connection to TFA. And, the connection isn’t as significant as many of his critics have suggested. He was connected to TFA for a short time (two years and two months in New York to be exact). It’s cool if you don’t believe me, you can look it up. Why does this matter? Well, for one, it directly dispels the myth that DeRay is somehow a TFA drone incapable of thinking for himself on the issue of education without the TFA playbook as was suggested in this piece by Drew Franklin and other pieces like it.

Yes, TFA has been a financial contributor to Mckesson’s campaign. They haven’t hidden that fact. But, that is also hardly different than any of the candidacies of TFA alums seeking financial support. TFA has supported a host of candidates before DeRay--and it’s possible that you’ve likely voted for one in a local election.

To try and separate DeRay primarily for this reason is patently unfair and not based on any substance. The reality is that DeRay’s actual platform is anything but a regurgitation of TFA’s policies and positions. Looking at his education platform reveals a balanced plan that is considerate of all sides of the education debate. DeRay clearly believes we can do a better job in classrooms, which make many union loyalists uncomfortable. Perhaps one reason this ruffles feathers is the concern of what a plan like his might mean in terms of finally holding those same union apologists accountable for continuing to miss the mark in urban schools year after year.

RELATED: DeRay Mckesson on Mayoral Race and Future of Black Lives Matter

There is also an underpinning or race that many would like to brush past when looking at who is being most critical of DeRay on this issue and why. Many of the loudest voices of opposition are those of white, professional, college-educated folks falling directly into the pro-union teacher crowd. This is a group that would seek to protect the currently existing system from even modest reforms, in no small part, because they continue to benefit from that same system without having to do very much in return.

Their criticism is political and incongruent with Mckesson’s background, organizing, platform, or his history of working in traditional public schools at the district level. Beyond being off base, there is also the patronizing and benevolent reoccurring notion that this same crowd, privileged whites and self-labeled progressives (who, ironically, oppose educational reform labeled as progress), know more and know better about how to successfully meet the educational needs of inner-city black and brown children than members of our own community. Yet, there is no acknowledgment that these same black and brown children are currently receiving sub-par and below-standard education under their direction. Funny how that works.

Protesters shout and carry placards during a march trough Baltimore, Maryland on April 29, 2015. Thousands of young protesters marched through downtown Baltimore demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Unfortunately there are also some blacks who have also been critically misinformed about Deray and his education plans and, as a result, have been launching the same off-base criticisms. The optics here are important: somehow because the criticisms of DeRay that seem to come from within the community are viewed as more credible and motivated with little or no nefarious intent. However, digging just a little deeper, we can easily trace the rhetoric back to the same crowd of white union folks who are hardly interested in change.

One of the best examples of this very point would be this piece by Caucus of Working Educators, a group that on the surface purports to be focused on social justice but is ultimately an arm of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers cloaked in disarming racial rhetoric.

There’s no question that DeRay’s style as an organizer and an activist is not for everyone. Nor should it be. Apologist blacks intent on operating within the confines of respectability constructs will automatically reject anything that DeRay would advance if only for the fact that his disruptive methods strike many of the old guard as not palatable. But, given the fact that whatever we are doing in primary education in Baltimore isn’t working, what if a little system disruption is just what we need?

According to Baltimore City’s own school data, 72 percent of students scored below proficient in math, 45 percent scored below proficient in reading, and 64 percent scored below proficient in science. The mean 2014 SAT score is 1125, down from 1142 in 2008. The mean 2014 ACT score is 16 down from 17 in 2008. By Comparison, the SAT US average is 1500, and the ACT average is 21. Clearly, this is a ship that needs righting.

RELATED: How 'Black Lives Matter' Activists Are Shaping the 2016 Campaign

While DeRay may not be the most ideal candidate on every issue, and he may not have all the answers on education, it’s unfair to paint him as a puppet for TFA. That is a criticism loaded with tons of resistance by a privileged faction of the left, and misguided by recycled misinformation by many who haven’t taken the time to do the research for themselves. Whatever the ultimate thoughts on DeRay may be, he deserves a fair shake on his positions just like any other candidate in the crowded mayoral race.

Charles Cole, III is an educator and guest blogger for Education Post. He has worked as a director for Teach for America, and is a national speaker and writer. He can be found in Oakland and around the country working with youth on how to equip themselves appropriately to lay the groundwork for a bright future.