In the latest episode of We Love Schools, host Joel Gagne speaks with Eric Waldo, who was the Chief of Staff for President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, about the intersection of public schools and politics. Waldo was the Executive Director for Reach Higher, which was an initiative started by Michelle Obama, and he is currently the Executive Vice President for Education at Civic Nation.

Waldo has worked in education throughout his entire career, and the two discuss the intersection of public schools and politics in this episode of the podcast.

When Gagne asks why he became an advocate for public schools, Waldo reflects on a class he took during his senior year in college that helped fire his passion for public schools. A quote that stood out for him was from Horace Mann.

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery,” Waldo says this quote stuck out for him, and helped make him a passionate advocate for public schools.

He continues that education can help young people achieve their dreams, and he thinks education is the place we should be putting our time and resources to improve our society.

Waldo recounts some of his favorite stories that showed him the ways that our public schools are succeeding for our children and families during his time working with Secretary of Education Duncan.

“One of the trips we did, we actually were in a border town. This public school was serving primarily rural students, and students were waking up at 4:00 in the morning to cross the Mexico-United States border to attend school here,” Waldo recounts.

He said it was such a great testament to the quality of our education that these students were willing to put so much effort into crossing the border with their parents every morning to attend public school.

Waldo talks about instilling confidence in students to continue their education, and Gagne shares a story about how he was placed on a non-college track, but how attending junior college helped him improve his own confidence to go on to Northeastern University.

“Unfortunately so much of what we hear from children and adults is that they remember a counselor or a teacher telling them what they couldn’t do,” Waldo says. “We need to show students what’s possible if they believe in themselves.”

Waldo continues to explain a bit more about Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative and how the work continues despite the Obamas no longer being in the White House. The Reach Higher initiative was created to help inspire students to continue education past high school. Obama has her own story of being discouraged to continue her education, so the goal of Reach Higher is to help young people navigate the path to college.

The work of Reach Higher has been moved to a non-profit called Civic Nation, for which Obama is now the Board Chair. The organization has been making a big impact despite the Obamas no longer being in the White House. Waldo encourages listeners to visit to learn more about their initiatives.

Gagne mentions that the political environment has changed, and he asks Waldo what these changes mean for public schools and politics.

“The federal government is actually the minority investor in our public schools,” Waldo explains. “There’s tremendous influence, though, that the federal government can have on key issues.”

Waldo expects that there will be less leadership from Washington when it comes to public schools, so it’ll be up to state and local governments to continue to lead. He thinks it’s an opportunity for the next generation of leaders to step up.

Waldo thinks our first priority in improving our public schools should be changing the way that we pay our school public school teachers.

When asked about one book he would recommend, Waldo suggests “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.” The book discusses how automation and AI will change our economy as well education, commerce and all systems of society.

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