Education and Politics

I usually like to stick to education on this blog, but I thought I’d take a little foray into politics. This 2016 election year has been interesting to say the least. I’m generally a Democrat but I have spent a lot of time with Republicans and I believe I understand the lure of the Republican platform. Who would not be excited about lower taxes, a smaller more efficient government, and people with values?

There are of course differences between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans want government to do as little as possible and private enterprise to do as much as possible. This whole social conservative movement that has erupted over the last 20 or 30 years is not part of the original Republican Party. It’s something that I think some politicians have used energize the base, but is not really part of the real conservatism.

Democrats on the other hand see as government as a tool of the people. Democrats don’t necessarily see government is evil, but they know that government can do evil. What they do want government to do, what they believe government does best, are those things that individuals can’t necessarily do. The government should protect people from the powerful, protect people from being exploited, force the powerful to do what’s right, fund and share large project that help the country as a whole, but aren’t necessarily direct money makers

The differences are pretty basic as far as I can see. Republicans see a problem and they try to shine a light on it and create incentives for the free market or private enterprise to fix the problem. Democrats see a problem and they want the best solution to be found and implemented.

Now if the problem is building an infrastructure, such as roads, or water systems, or even delivery of education, I think the government is the right entity to provide that solution. These are huge projects that benefit everyone, even those people who don’t use them on a regular basis (this in my mind makes me a Democrat). So yes, our collective will, the government, should be the person who leads the development and financing of these projects. On the other hand the national government shouldn’t be making small detailed decisions like where should the stop sign go, or how much fluoride should I put in the water, or exactly what should be taught during March of the school year in a local elementary school. These decisions are best left to the local people.

Take for example the Department of Education. It was created by the Carter Administration. only a Democrat would think of elevating the Department of Education to a cabinet level position. On the other hand only a Republican would think of pushing the limits of those powers. In 2000 Bush decided to use the Department of Education to help underprivileged schools. It is no surprise that for many years students in underprivileged neighborhoods had schools that are failing; they often have buildings that are falling down, they have less equipment, many have less effective teachers, and students generally don’t do as well or learn as much as their more privileged peers.

With the Republican mindset of a government that doesn’t do things, but encourages businesses or people to do things it makes sense to Start No Child Left Behind. If you start with just the general idea of schools are bad, let’s tell people and require the people make them better that doesn’t sound like a bad thing does it? And really it isn’t, it’s not bad to shine light on the truth. And the truth is that schools and students in underprivileged neighborhoods get the short end of the shaft.

The problem is the execution of the policy. Politicians are more often than not lawyers, not educators, they don’t understand how education works. Like most people they went through school where the teacher taught, they took the test, if they passed the test then they must have learned something. So NCLB is set up that way, give kids a test and if they pass they learned if they fail they must not have learned. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the teachers didn’t teach and the schools aren’t working.

After Bush came Obama and Democrats. Democrats see government as needing to fix what is wrong. Since Republicans were so nice to shine a light on the problem Democrats decided to institute a fix.

The Obama administration followed No Child Left Behind with Race To The Top. Race To The Top took the idea that these schools were failing and we need to institute researched based policies to fix them. This sounds good to me except for the part where research says basically anything you want it to say and so politicians / lawyers devised the solutions that would somehow fix education.

There are a lot of problems with schools in our poorest neighborhoods. the best teachers often leave as soon as they can, resources are woefully inadequate, buildings are falling down, often community support is lacking, and the culture can be counterproductive (If you don’t see education as a ticket to a better life you don’t value education). Unfortunately not every school faces the exact same set of problems so a solution has to be created for each school and each district separately. There can’t be one set of instructions for everybody. And the policies that were picked sounded good, but rarely worked.

The real fix for education is a simple compromise between the Republican and Democratic approaches to the problem. There needs to be a light shined on the issues facing schools, but it has to shine on all of these issues, lack of support, lack of money, lack of community, all of that stuff has to be brought to light. We can’t depend on the goodwill of businesses or nonprofits or community volunteers to fix these problems, we have to as a people, as a government entity, decide that we value education and provide the necessary support. Those supports include wraparound services, building the support structure necessary to make education possible.

Then we need to step back and let local districts decide what that means. If this sounds like education in the 1990s before Bush instituted No Child Left Behind, then you’re half right. It is except before No Child Left Behind there was no spot light being shined on these districts. Have you ever been to a school board meeting? Nobody shows up. The school board is there, the principles are there, the superintendent is there, and usually the union president is there. The only time the public shows up to a school board meeting is when somebody is winning an award, or somebody’s in trouble.

Obviously locally elected school boards are not really being monitored. So some sort of monitoring or justification for implementing policies and follow up on whether they’re actually working or not is necessary. And it might actually be good or better if it’s being monitored by somebody higher up, the state or the national level. It could provide more stability, often schools will go in one direction while a superintendent is running the school district and then that person moves on, somebody new is hired and the direction changes. Schools and education don’t work when you change direction every 2 or 3 years.

Schools and the people in our poorest neighborhoods need more than just edicts from a government power. They need the time and support to develop and implement their own solutions to their own problems. The Republican solution which seems to be telling people to doing stuff wrong and either fix it or get in trouble doesn’t work. The Democratic solution of implementing a fix designed in the White House or on Capitol Hill will not work. Each solution needs to be developed and implemented in each neighborhood, custom solutions for each individual problem. The government needs to hire good people and let them do what they are good at doing.

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