Former Providence, R.I., Mayor Jorge Elorza was appointed to lead Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) Monday, launching the rising Democratic star into a key culture war post ahead of the 2024 election.
As head of DFER, a political advocacy organization with an affiliated think tank, Elorza will push the left’s education policy initiatives, while also diving into politics, supporting candidates up and down the ballot nationwide.
“We are very much a policy organization and we advocate for policies, but we also work in the political space,” Elorza told The Hill.
But Elorza, a son of Guatemalan immigrants who went from Rhode Island public schools to Harvard Law School, said parents are looking to cast aside the politics and focus on educational quality.
“We continually hear less and less of the culture wars, these issues that perhaps get the sound bites, and really what they care about, ‘Is my kid getting a top notch education or not?'”
As mayor, Elorza helped turn around Providence’s public school system by investing $400 million in school buildings and supporting the expansion of high performing charter schools, according to DFER.
Those charter schools, Elorza said, are attracting families like his who view education as an advancement opportunity.
“While support for high performing charter schools is strong across the board, nowhere is it stronger than with low income and Black and brown families that simply don’t have the choices at this time, in the same way that wealthy families have choices,” Elorza said.
“So it comes back to when you see great schools, you want more of them, and more and more folks are taking notice.”
Elorza said school choice and high performing charter schools have had “remarkable success.”
“So now, charter schools and school choice is firmly established throughout the education landscape. And that’s really remarkable, again, given the opposition and headwinds that it’s faced in the past, and I see it as a great moment of opportunity,” Elorza said.
Though Elorza said he’d like to see traditional public schools raise to the level of quality of the best charter schools, he said there’s an achievement gap between the two that needs to be addressed.
“I’m a product of the public schools, and I wouldn’t be here without them. But I’ve also seen that there come times where our traditional public schools are now instead of enabling the American dream, sometimes they’re an obstacle to the American dream. And that’s, and that’s a problem that we need to fix.”
Still, Elorza criticized the GOP approach to education, which takes “school choice” as a banner to attack Democrats on social issues like race relations and LGBTQ rights.
Those culture war topics have turned education into political red meat, with each side of the political spectrum measuring the quality of schooling with a different yardstick.
“I’m also frustrated and concerned that education is in the headlines, but for the wrong reasons,” Elorza said.
“Republicans have been obsessed with fighting their culture wars and have dragged education into it. And I think it’s really important for us to show the clear contrast between Republicans and Democrats on this.”
That contrast, Elorza said, is easily summed up: “Republicans want to ban books, and Democrats, what we want to do is teach kids to read books. There’s a very real difference there.”