03/18/2014 11:50 am ET Updated May 18, 2014

Why I Still Go to Washington

The promise of American government is not that there will be either more or less of it, a debate that will always rage. The promise of American government is that the people will be heard. And when it comes to education policy, it's a promise that's not being kept.

It is a discouraging time to be an educator. Though this period in American history will surely be known for its dysfunction, Democrats and Republicans have been able to speak in unison when it comes to the privatization of education. The consensus is clear, and Race to the Top is here. And those of us who work with low-income students every day know just how deeply these market-based reforms are damaging our future.

On March 22nd, I will travel to Washington to attend the 34th Annual Policy Seminar, "Mobilizing for College Access and Success," hosted by the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). I will be joined by TRIO colleagues from all 50 states and most U.S. territories because wherever an American flag flies, a TRIO program exists to help low-income students enroll, attend and graduate from a postsecondary institution. We will visit our congressional delegations because for the sixth year in a row, the Obama administration has proposed level funding for our programs. We have a president who proposes private-sector partnerships while starving public-sector programs of their funding and their effectiveness.

Yet even as public opinion turns against its education policies, the Obama administration presses on with an agenda that would make Bush proud. In North Carolina, a Republican governor and a legislative supermajority have demolished teacher tenure, prompting school board revolts across the state. You won't hear Obama speaking out against that because he supports it.

In Colorado, a mother who opted her middle-school child out of standardized testing learned the full effects of the Obama administration's policies. Like her child's principal, I too looked at the attendance figures on test day, saw them creep below 95 percent and knew that even if everyone aced the test, our school would no longer make Adequate Yearly Progress. As we "failed" year after year, new principals churned in and out of the building every 10 months. You won't hear Obama talking about that either because as he implements his version of accountability, he destroys the fabric of our school communities. A principal and a mother are powerless when funding is tied to test scores.

Instead of speaking out for the poor, the president is touting his budget proposal, which limits student loan forgiveness for public service employees to $57,500. That isn't enough money for a single year of school at either of his alma maters. The administration is clearly focused on retaining the Senate during the midterms, yet the president continues to demonstrate a striking disregard for the constituencies that supported him and now need him the most. When Democratic voter turnout is low this year, he will only have himself to blame.

Washington is a place that the American people hate. And yet last year, as I waited in the security line to visit Capitol Hill for the first time, I encountered others from all over the country still waiting for their voices to be heard.

There were doctors there advocating against Medicare payment reductions on behalf of their low-income patients. There were farmers there explaining the desperate need to pass a new farm bill. And there were educators there fighting to keep public education alive.

Those were the lobbyists I met in line. Perhaps the high-profile lobbyists weren't waiting out in the cold in inexpensive suits for fifteen minutes of someone's time. But none of us looked discouraged. We were emboldened and ready to fight.

I am emboldened still because I know that our Upward Bound program takes students from the poorest city in Massachusetts and sends them across the country to highly-selective institutions. I am emboldened because for a democracy to survive, people must finally be heard. Are we that far off from our own American oligarchy, our own American nightmare, when our children, who have few voices in Washington, continue to be ignored? And what business do businessmen have telling teachers how to teach?

Economic self-sufficiency in this country requires a college education for the overwhelming majority of us. But a degree is increasingly expensive and unattainable. By increasing college costs and decreasing college access programs like TRIO, the upper and business classes are indenturing an entire generation, creating a permanent underclass for those not willing to drown in debt.

But I cannot give up on the idea that all students, no matter where they were born, deserve the opportunity to earn good grades and go to good schools and get good jobs. Right now, we are no longer making that promise to our children. According to Tom Mortenson of the Pell Institute, only eight percent of students in the lowest income quartile attain a college degree while 73 percent of those in the highest quartile do. Since 1970, this gap between rich and poor has widened by more than 30 percent.

So we will still go to Washington. And we will keep going to Washington until the promise is restored.