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Debating Education – What’s at Stake in the 2012 Election?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Watching the first presidential debate one thing was made very clear, neither nominee has a plan for education that will support its development into the kind of rich, individualized, adaptive, technology-centered learning environment that it needs to be to help students become 21st Century leaders.  While I don’t tend to agree fully with either side when it comes to what education could be and should look like, both candidates basic approach to dealing with the issue sheds a lot of light on what education reform might look like under each. Here is a brief overview of their policies and espoused policies up to this point, and a reflection on what they might mean for the future of American public education.
 

The Candidates’ Positions on Education
In a debate on domestic issues, education seemed to garner a good deal of attention, getting mentioned by each candidate several times. But what did they really say? Actually, neither candidate said much of substance regarding education during the debate. The main takeaway that I got from actually watching was that both candidates said that they would not cut education funding.  A closer look at each of their formal policies on their campaign websites reveals the following about each one’s plans for education.

Governor Romney
While the "V" word (vouchers) was never actually uttered by candidate Romney in regards to education during the debate, he did talk about this actual cornerstone of his education plan by saying that parent’s need to have choices for their schools. Looking at the Romney campaign website it is completely clear what his plan is for school reform:

"Giving students trapped in bad schools a genuine alternative requires four things: (1) such alternatives must exist, (2) parents must receive clear information about the performance of their current school and of the alternatives, (3) students must be allowed to move to a new school, and (4) students must bring funding with them so that new schools can afford to serve them." (mittromney.com/issues/education)

I have written about the negative effects of vouchers in this space before in Dr. Seuss on Vouchers and Public Education, and  Getting a "3rd World" Education Right Here at Home? citing many issues and data that explain in detail why a voucher system cannot work. Among the most compelling reasons are:

  • That there simply are not "better" schools for students to choose to attend in many of the places where public schools are failing.
  • There are generally no provisions to provide transportation to these "better" schools, if they even exist.
  • Forced overcrowding at "better" schools through vouchers causes social conflict within the schools and communities.
  • There are socio-economic differences that make vouchered students easy targets for discrimination in their new schools.
  • It is impossible to move every student from failing schools into "better" schools, there isn’t enough space.
  • Pulling funding from failing schools further weakens those schools.

Beyond the voucher issue, Governor Romney’s ideas for education reform are similar to President Obama’s.

President Obama – The President has been working for almost four years to roll back harmful No Child Left Behind legislation, work to reward successful teachers,  and to improve standards in all schools.

"President Obama implemented the Race to the Top initiative, which has already helped spur 46 states to raise standards by rewarding innovation and positive reforms in local schools. President Obama understands that education is not a top- down, one-size-fits-all issue—that’s why he has given states the flexibility to create their own ambitious plans for reform, relieving them of restrictive No Child Left Behind mandates." (barcakobama.com/education)

While the overall idea behind education reform based on teacher accountability and standardization is not one that is really a long term solution for solving the problems with education, the focus on fixing all schools rather than closing schools that are failing is a far better option than simply shutting down failing schools and relocating students in unrealistic ways.

During the debate, the President did mention several times that he would like to increase the number of teachers in the country dramatically. While this is not explicitly a pledge to increase funding, there is no way to pay 100,000 new teachers without improving financial support for schools. This is where the most significant difference between the two candidates becomes obvious.

Voting for an Ideal Future
Overall there is a fundamental contrast between these two candidate’s views of what education is, who it serves, and how it can be made better. To simplify the difference, this is a choice between allowing some children to move to better schools and making all schools better. What’s at stake in that decision is potentially cutting off a huge segment of the American population from education. Are we willing to risk disenfranchising much of our population in the vain hope that all students will find a better alternative? In reality, a voucher system will hurt the country overall by forcing schools to close and turning uneducated students out into the streets to fend for themselves. That is not acceptable.

When talking about education and education reform it is necessary to be an optimist. We are, after all, talking about children and the long-term viability of our entire society. Abandoning failing schools and eventually the children who can’t relocate is an indictment that we are not a society that cares about each other and cannot focus beyond the bottom line, right now issues. Education is an investment in our collective future. Our children and the system that educates and socializes them are our greatest resources and the only hope we have for remaining viable in a connected, global economy where a "glut of genius" in China and India is threatening to overwhelm our very well-being .

There is a big difference between "not cutting funding" and increasing funding. Neither candidate has an explicit plan for increasing education funding and "doubling down" on the trump card that we already have in our hand. We need to seize this moment to tell both candidates that "not cutting funding" is not good enough. I’m planning to vote for the candidate who proposes dramatically INCREASING funding to all schools.