And Education is… Forgotten

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

Unless you’ve been holed up in your 1950s-era bomb shelter (or in Indiana Jones lead-lined refrigerator!), the last week has been non-stop politics, with a quick entertainment break called Hurricane Gustav. I can’t remember the last time two conventions were back-to-back, but I’m guessing that the media needs a break. Poor Wolfie. He must be tired.

I’m not sure what purpose these conventions have in this millennium. No “election” or “selection” occurs anymore. It is nothing but a prime-time anointing spectacular with mostly really bad, ultra-partisan (because that is what it is) speeches, and delegates dressed in very creative garb.

I won’t get partisan here; I have enough material on both sides to go off for about 10,000 words. At least Canada has a third party to pick from; I’ll leave it at that.

For those in the education sector, we always want to know what the future will hold for education with a new president and a new Congress. Unfortunately, education is largely forgotten in the US Presidential Election this year. Sure, each candidate brings up a few boiler-plate points on education, because they have to, but this election is about direction and leadership. Even after a bad eight years, this one comes down to ideology: small or big government. Tax cuts, Iraq, and maybe even health care (OK, the Dems want to talk health care; the Republicans don’t). But education isn’t on the list.

It’s kind of funny. When the candidates DO talk education, it is as if they brushed off speeches from 4, 8, or 12 years ago. For the Democrats, bring down college pricing, make education better. For the Republicans, more “choice” through vouchers. If we take a look at the campaign websites, this is what we see:

From www.johnmccain.com:

John McCain believes American education must be worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. He understands that we are a nation committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education.

From www.barackobama.com:

I don’t want to send another generation of American children to failing schools. I don’t want that future for my daughters. I don’t want that future for your sons. I do not want that future for America.

Well, who’s to argue with either statement? They are both about opportunity and excellence in education. It’s how they get there that differs.

Obama talks about unfunded mandates (No Child Left Behind), expanding Head Start for young children, providing Child Care and after-school programs, rewarding teachers, and creating a tax credit for higher education (don’t we already have one from 1997?). There is more, but that’s it in a nutshell. (See his education platform here)

McCain tops his bill with “equality of choice” and “empowering parents.” That’s all code for school vouchers, which have been a Republican core concept for decades. McCain also talks of reforming NCLB, rewarding teachers, providing high quality tutoring programs for all students with needs, and expanding online education opportunities (and, yes, much more…). (See McCain’s education platform here).

I can read down each candidates list of issues, and, for the most part, agree with everything they say. But it comes down to the underlying philosophical, ideological issues that separate the two parties: the role of government. The Republicans would rather block grant everything to the states, or, just let the states fund it. They want to give more tax breaks back to taxpayers for education and all other things. The Democrats don’t flow that way. They want to fully fund the federal mandates (like NCLB), force the states to act in a certain way on behalf of those who do not have much voice (e.g., low-income students), focus on public rather than private education, and ensure there is enough money to do these things, which means, not so much tax reduction (although, to be fair, the Democrats do plan on cutting taxes for everyone under $250k, although the Republicans love to say the Democrats are raising taxes; that simply isn’t true this year).

Beyond that, the candidates continue to throw around the same type of stuff. Here are two quick examples:

Let’s make college more affordable! Great idea, but beyond tax cuts and credits, how does the federal government do that? I don’t like the use of tax cuts and credits, but it is really the only way Congress can deal with it.

Let’s reward teachers with incentives and merit pay! Both candidates say this, and it wouldn’t be an election if they didn’t. But please tell me how we do this equitably? Merit pay looks great on paper and makes sense intellectually, but it doesn’t work in the real world very well.

We can dice this stuff up, but it really doesn’t matter because this election is not even close to being about education. The parties are trying to tug on the heartstrings of Americans, the Republicans through terrorism and national safety, and the Democrats through social safety nets. If the Democrats get elected, I expect more money in education. But they will have to figure out how to pay for it, since our economy and federal budget are collectively in the tank. If McCain wins, expect flat funding (at best), with a few boutique programs, and not much focus on education.

I don’t state this in a good-versus-bad manner (at least that’s not my point). However, understand that the education policies of these two individuals and their parties differ greatly. For this year, though, it doesn’t matter much, because it’s about the economy and the war. It’s about $4 gas. It’s about globalization and its impact on the US. It isn’t about education.

Sorry. Maybe in 2012.

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