The Candidates on Education

I’ll admit it: I’m almost a single-issue voter. For me, where there are clear differences, public education tends to trump most other issues.

While voters always say that education is among their top concerns, they generally don’t vote like it. I think that’s because candidates on both the right and the left have had a tough time coming up with a message on education that really provides much traction with voters.

The fact is that Americans are highly conflicted on education. Culturally, we detest snobs and intellectuals. Many of the greatest figures of our national folklore are self-made women and men who rose despite their humble beginnings–not those who took advantage of a great education.

These days, only about 20% of households have children in school, and a study I read some years ago estimated that about 25% of parents have never entered their children’s schools. We Americans say that education is key thing that we can do for our children, but we don’t vote like it, and sometime I think that because we don’t really believe it.

On education, here’s where the candidates stand.

Righter: Clinton

Just how bad is the 2002 ESEA reauthorization, commonly–and obscenely–referred to by the Bush campaign slogan “No Child Left Behind”?

The answer to that question is best reserved for another column. Suffice it to say that I believe what’s wrong with it cannot be fixed. It is profoundly anti-education and anti-child, substituting shallow testing skills for true learning and ignoring what we know is best for children. I believe that tomorrow’s parents will hate learning and disrespect schools in ways we can only dimly imagine today. NCLB should have been strangled in its crib.

On NCLB, Clinton’s issue statement on education says it simplest and best: “As president, she will . . . [e]nd the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.”

Notice that she doesn’t say she’ll fund it, which admittedly would be better than what the present administration has done. She says she’ll end it. One can only hope.

You can see parts of Clinton’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Surprisingly right: Huckabee

Give him credit. Mike Huckabee, whose issue statement on education proudly proclaims that he has “been a strong, consistent supporter of the rights of parents to home school their children, of creating more charter schools, and of public school choice,” spoke to delegates to NEA’s Representative Assembly in July.

Delegates aren’t used to seeing Republicans, because Republican candidates generally don’t even seek dialogue with NEA. He was warmly received, as he should have been.

The distinction between “public school choice” and “school choice” couldn’t be greater. “Public school choice” refers to the ability of parents to choose the public school best suited to their children’s needs. “School choice” is simply a euphemism for school privatization, including school vouchers.

For my taste, Huckabee’s a little too enthusiastic about charter schools: “As Governor, I fought hard for more charter schools, with their strong parental involvement and their unique ability to serve as laboratories for education reform, and for the rights of parents to home school their children.” But his statements can coexist with public education: I’m a pretty rabid supporter of public education, but even I would agree that parents have the right to home-school their children. And many public educators were interested in charter schools back when the idea was to use them to try out new techniques, not to bust unions, teach wacky curricula, and resegregate students.

I’m most concerned about what Huckabee’s statement doesn’t say. I wish it condemned voucher schools, but it doesn’t mention them. And I’ve heard that he says that he doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, but his Web site doesn’t take a position on the movement to teach creationism along with evolution–a movement that in my mind is just nuts.

His statement does say, “I am proud that my three children attended public schools from K through twelve, as did my wife and I”–which is something even the Clintons can’t say.

You can see parts of Huckabee’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Wrong: Obama

Barack Obama supports merit pay.

His issue statement on education says, “Obama will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as a mentor to new teachers with a salary increase. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. ” These are generally good ideas, although as usual federal education proposals ignore the overwhelming role that state and local funding play in public education.

But he saves the most troublesome item for last: “[I]f teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.” This is merit pay.

Teachers I know are divided on just how troublesome merit pay is, but virtually all have problems with it. At its worst, it sets up two tiers of teachers: those who are are favored and those who aren’t. It rewards teachers who teach the best and brightest and punishes those who work with students who require the most intervention. And it turns schools, which ought to be learning communities in which educators work collegially to help improve the performance of all, into competitive enterprises in which anybody with a good idea is actually discouraged from sharing it.

You can see parts of Obama’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Wrongest: McCain

Like most Republican candidates, John McCain refused to appear at July’s annual meeting of the National Education Association. So much for “straight talk.”

John McCain’s issue statement on education says that “Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses.” So despite all the talk about his being less conservative than many Republicans would like, he still supports the privatization movement, which would eventually, inexorably dismantle America’s system of public schools.

You can see parts of McCain’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by–oh, that’s right, you can’t: he stayed away.

Author: StgCoach

Retired teacher and public education leader. Pastoral musician, community activist, parliamentarian, and photographer.