On Monday, August 26, President Barack Obama met in the Oval Office with eight of the top high school debaters in the country that participate in “urban debate leagues.” Urban debate leagues, or UDLs, are nonprofit organizations that support scholastic debate programs and organize tournaments in urban districts. This nonprofit movement started in Atlanta under Melissa Maxcy Wade at Emory University in the mid-1980s, and there are now around 20 urban leagues in the country, from Los Angeles to Boston.
Eight debaters from five representative cities (New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and St. Louis) met with the President, and, through the guidance of the Chicago-basedNational Association of Urban Debate Leagues, they will be meeting with other officials this week, including Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.
However, despite a robust D.C. Urban Debate League founded in 2002, whose programs involve many of the charter schools in the District of Columbia, there is currently not enough debate within DC Public Schools (DCPS) for its students to have had this opportunity to meet the President in their own city. This is a great shame, especially given the growing list of studies that establish the benefits of debate for academic achievement and graduation rates. There are some immediate things that DCPS and city government can do to foster more debate in the District.
First, DCPS should work to ensure that coaches of competitive academic activities (why not call them sports?) receive the same stipends as athletic coaches of basketball or swimming. While many D.C. teachers have sacrificed tremendously, in time and money, over the years to participate in the urban debate league, frequent teacher turnover creates a tremendous problem in refilling coach slots without reasonable incentives. For example, McKinley Technology Education Campus had the strongest high school debate team in the city for many years, but once its previous coach Mark Roberts moved on, its team nearly disintegrated without an immediate replacement. While any DCPS rule change that would increase costs can be hard to advance in a time of tight budgets, this unfairness deters teachers from supporting academic sports and restricts academic achievement in DCPS.