Spread the word!

elections

DNC and RNC Education Platforms: from Bad to Worse

Now that the Democrats and Republicans have both released their 2012 party platforms, I took a look at each party's education planks (with stiff drink firmly in hand). Here's a bit of preliminary analysis.

The first thing that struck me was just how little was actually written on the Democratic side. Sure, substance is not just about word count (though the GOP's plank is 65% longer), but the difference is notable.

It's mostly touting Obama's reforms, and is very light on details for what a second term would hold from either the President or Congress. In their defense, incumbent parties usually take up a lot of space talking about their policy wins — the GOP did that in 2004, but their education plank then was more than twice as long as today's Dem plank.

Some of the Dem plank's internal contradictions are staggering. Here's their description of Race to the Top — which is an exercise in arm-twisting to all but force states to drastically expand charter schools, testing, and "merit" pay — cloaked in opposite words, like "flexibility."

President Obama and the Democrats are committed to working with states and communities so they have the flexibility and resources they need to improve elementary and secondary education in a way that works best for students. To that end, the President challenged and encouraged states to raise their standards so students graduate ready for college or career and can succeed in a dynamic global economy. Forty-six states responded, leading groundbreaking reforms that will deliver better education to millions of American students. 

And I was a bit surprised that they doubled down on what was probably the dumbest idea they proposed to tackle spiraling tuition costs:

President Obama has pledged to encourage colleges to keep their costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not...

I tackled this ridiculous idea back when he proposed in in January. The idea is that colleges who can't keep tuition below the rate of inflation will face a cut federal aid (it's not clear if that's direct institutional aid, or aid to students who go there). It's a cousin of the equally ridiculous policy in many states that punishes low-performing K12 schools by cutting funding.

But often, the difference between Dem and GOP planks is merely one of tone:

GOP: Rigid tenure systems based on the “last in, first out” policy should be replaced with a merit-based approach that can attract fresh talent and dedication to the classroom. 
Dem: This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers. We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom.

GOP: New systems of learning are needed to compete with traditional four-year colleges: expanded community colleges and technical institutions, private training schools, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector.
Dem (2008 platform): At community colleges and training programs across the country, we will invest in short-term accelerated training and technical certifications for the unemployed and under-employed to speed their transition to careers in high-demand occupations and emerging industries. [...] We support education delivery that makes it possible for non-traditional students to receive support and encouragement to obtain a college education, including Internet, distance education, and night and weekend programs.

As a result, we see the Democratic platform is simply a mild-mannered version of the GOP platform. The GOP platform, sure, has some particularly rotten fruit — "we support the English First approach", vouchers and "choice," abstinence, online universities, attacking colleges as "zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left", and kulturkampf over religion and "cultural identity." But the two planks clearly are trees sharing the same roots.

Fundamentally, the framing used to understand problems and prescribe solutions in education is a bipartisan one: it's always about competition, and America competing with competitiveness in competitions with other competitors to out-compete each other to win (implied anti-China saber-rattling included, free of charge!).

Dem: "An Economy that Out-Educates the World"
GOP (2008): "Education Means a More Competitive America"

It's no surprise then, with framing like this, how easily right-wing education policies are held by Democrats and Republicans alike.

What might an actually progressive education plank look like?

There are a lot of things that could have been included in the Dem's education plank, especially since they really want — need — high youth turnout to keep the White House and win back Congress. Here are several (some more politically plausible than others):

  • Attack standardized testing, and all systems that link any benefits or penalties to them.
  • Propose returning most decision-making back to the classroom
  • Propose that students should have a significant presence on all school boards and administrative bodies.
  • Propose that any charter school operating with public funds must be a non-profit with a democratically-elected board.
  • Propose a constitutional amendment to ensure that all students receive an equitable, properly-funded, quality public education.
  • Propose a strengthening of student free-speech rights in K12 and college, which courts have been drastically eroding over the past decade.
  • Propose a serious student loan debt forgiveness program. Right now the current income-based loan repayment programs are confusing and underresourced, and only apply to Federal loans (no luck if you, like most of us, had to take out a ton of private loans).
  • Propose allowing student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy, like all other loans.
  • Propose that Federal student loans will be granted at drastically lower rates, perhaps the Prime Rate
  • Affirm that all public and private university employees — including grad students — have the right to organize under the NLRB.
  • Propose that any accredited university, in order for any of their students to receive federal education benefits, must be a non-profit.

I'm not holding my breath that we'll be seeing any of those bulletpoints coming from the White House anytime soon. It'll take a massive, multi-sector, non-electorally-focused student movement that can instill terror in the hearts of politicians to get any of this done. And that's exactly what we should be organizing around this fall semester, even in an election year — or as our friends in Québec might insist, especially in an election year.

Democratic and Republican Party Platforms: Education Planks, 2012 and 2008

Below is, for your reference, the education planks of the Democratic and Republican Party Platforms for 2012 and 2008.

Democrats: 2012 | 2008

Republicans: 2012 | 2008

When it Comes to Education, Democrats Hate Democracy

Late last month, Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came out swinging against elected school boards:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.

Duncan said mayoral control provides the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.
[...]
He acknowledged Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, asking how many superintendents the city had in the past 10 years. The answer was seven.

"And you wonder why school systems are struggling," Duncan said. "What business would run that way?"

After the forum, Duncan told The Associated Press that urban schools need someone who is accountable to voters and driving all of a city's resources behind children.

"Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," he said.

Arne Duncan Renaissance 2010In a sense, I can understand his motivation: as head of Chicago Public Schools, he was a direct recipient of abrogated school board power. The democratic, decentralized, and much-lauded Local School Council system in Chicago (which was created in the late 80s through tireless grassroots community organizing against the very bureaucracy Duncan would end up running) was systematically gutted and ignored under his tenure. It also isn't surprising that his main line of attack is that institutions of learning and governance aren't run enough like businesses. Duncan's Renaissance 2010 program was written and handed to him by the big business players in Chicago and elsewhere.

Now the Center for American Progress, through its panoply of blogs, is pushing the idea with some help with Mayor Bloomberg. Both CAP's Wonk Room and Matthew Yglesias blogs talked up the idea that really, having fewer elected officials means more democracy. Tom Vander Ark at the Huffington Post called what little democratic control we have over our schools to be a "strange historical remnant." Yglesias took the idea and ran with it, all the way to its monarchical end:

I think this is part of a larger issue about getting democracy right in the United States. There was an assumption, at one time, that you could make government more democratic and accountable by, in essence, multiplying the number of elected officials.

In retrospect, I think this was based on flawed logic and faulty assumptions that forgot to account for the fact that people have a limited amount of time they’re realistically going to spend monitoring public officials.
[...]
I think part of the answer is that states should probably adopt unicameral legislatures and consider cutting down on the number of independently elected statewide officials. But cutting down on the quantity and influence of hyper-local electeds and putting responsibility in the hands of visible figures like the mayor and city council is crucial.

Apparently Bloomberg did an interview for ThinkProgress, part of which featured him extoling the virtues of dictatorial control over schools, teachers, and students, with the help of bogus, cooked numbers:

My favorite part is near the end, when he says: “...you could literally end democracy as we know it here in this country… without an educated public. And when you have these school boards that are fundamentally controlled by special interests, the truth of the matter is that students come last, if at all.” Fewer elected officials = more democracy! It all makes perfect sense now!

Thankfully, regular readers largely countered and ridiculed such a position:

The flipside of Matt’s point is that when a single local elected executive is responsible for EVERYTHING, it’s pretty hard to hold him or her accountable for any specific thing. If you like what Bloomberg’s doing with, say, public safety and housing but don’t like his education policies, how do you hold him accountable? You can’t cast half a vote. On the other hand, a school board subject to being voted out of office can be held accountable.

And one of the commenters actually mentions what progressive reform of our school systems would look like:

The other kind of reform that is possible is to empower parents and teachers, but in order to do that you don’t need to gather power into the office of the mayor- you need to distribute power into the neighborhoods, families, and classrooms.

Another tip-off is the exaggerated concern about the “special interests”. Matt isn’t talking here about the textbook publishers and computer sellers- a mayor who doesn’t know anything about education isn’t going to tangle with those “experts”. And he isn’t talking about the real estate industry that wants to keep school taxes low- no mayor is going to try to trim the horns of the real estate barons.

No, when Matt is talking about “special interests” he’s referring to teachers and parents. Transfer the powers of the school board to the mayor’s office and those “special interests” will have just as much influence as the rest of us in an election- which is to say, none.

Authoritarian, bureaucratic schools are a bipartisan affair in politics - which means it's going to take a lot more than mere elections to reclaim our country's educational systems.

Syndicate content