The Lost Election Issue

Written by Dr. Michael P. Riccards Dr. Michael Riccards

Dr. Michael P. Riccards is Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey. Riccards is a former college president and a presidential scholar who has authored 15 books.

Monday, 19 March 2012 00:00

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In the long ordeal of primaries and intense fundraising, the candidates for the highest office in the land have pretty much neglected talking about education.

The Republicans have fallen all over themselves disavowing No Child Left Behind, the Bush legacy of benchmarks for graduation, school choice and parental empowerment.  The school districts complained that even with eight years time, they still have not been able to reach minimum standards.  The teachers complain that the law was generating too much paperwork, and they had to teach to the test.  These are same people who create endless tests for the students they teach.  The real fear is that standardized tests will show which districts and which teachers are of benefit to the kids in front of them, and which are not.

President Obama has transformed the NCLB into a “Race for the Top,” where some states get federal largesse and some do not.  That approach has not lead to a national upgrading of standards, and the Secretary of Education’s leadership has led to widespread hostility to the federal government’s role in the educational reform movement.  At the end of his term, President Obama has abandoned NCLB, and substituted state endorsed standards—exactly what we had before George W. Bush.

In fairness, the easy answers have not worked.  Large number of students are not leaving high school with appropriate skills and knowledge.  Three quarters of high school students go to college, including many who end up immediately taking college remediation in English and math.  Then only about half of these students in college eventually graduate.

The administration has now given technical education its approval.  It would do well to look at the work of the Clinton’s National Skills Standard Board with its standards and expectations for the skilled crafts and lower levels of white collar work.  I should mention that I served for several years on that group.  The President praises the roles of community colleges, but too much money goes to undergraduate colleges and universities, many of whom simply raise tuition yearly and rely on federal financial aid to help students cover the gap.   Community colleges should have direct routes to placement in the businesses and industries in their area. It is not enough to train older and unemployed workers in community colleges, and then have no place for them in the world of work.

The Republicans are even more dismal in their critique of education.  Governor Mitt Romney helped to instigate the educational reforms that led to one of the best public school system in the nation.  But as with the case with his medical care program, the father denies paternity.

Congressman Ron Paul simply believes in the world of one room school houses and country doctors.  Rick Santorum’s views are truly bizarre.  He opposes both federal and state aid to education.  He says he favors school choice and home-schools his nine children.  Then he charged a Pennsylvania school district the costs of $100,000 for on- line instruction of those children.  The school district reminded him he really lives in Virginia.  His disdain for education extends to college —he argues that the purpose of college is to brainwash students and make them into left wing socials liberals, like Obama.  By the way, Santorum is a law school graduate.

Gingrich is one of the few creative thinkers in the field, but his education policy is too often a mixture of resentments and rhetoric.  The liberals want more money to make education work.  But as all New Jerseyans admit—the huge financial expenditures directed to the Abbott schools has not really had an impact on many major cities. One morning, conservative  Joe Scarbourgh had on his TV show a high school math teacher from Newark who after five years was earning $50,000 per year, and pays for school supplies out of his own pocket.   Where in Newark is the $100,000,000 money from Facebook’s founder?   Cannot the grant process donate at least basic  teachers’ supplies?  Mayor Cory Booker in his state of the city address demanded that the schools must be better.  How about giving the math teacher some support?

That teacher in Newark was not unique.  My wife taught in Washington DC public, charter, and Catholic schools, and she did indeed pay for school supplies, subway fares, and lunches for children.  District of Columbia schools have the highest per capita expenditure for education, but where was the money?

The conservative answer is more charter schools and more school choice.  Choice is useful, but as expert Diane Ravish has shown charters are not more successful overall than the public schools they are supposed to supplaint.  But her most recent articles in the New York Review of Books praise the success of Finnish schools, the highest scoring system in the developed world.  Perhaps she should acknowledge that Newark and the Bronx are not Helsinski.The conservative critics, and others, want tougher standards for teacher evaluation.  But in New York City where Mayor Bloomberg has implanted a new system, the test scores and school profiles are often in error.  One teacher was ranked as most accomplished for a year she was on maternity leave.  Another was praised for teaching 110 students; she has 200.  Testing experts have argued that this methodology  is shot through with holes.  After all these years and money couldn’t New York City get it right?

In some areas in California, parents have used NCLB provisions to take over control of their schools and fire the whole lot of people there.  George Bush Senior called the schools a factor in “A Nation at Risk.”  In any case, we are taking about contraceptives, college coeds who feel that they have a constitutional right to government subsidies for such devices, same sex marriages, and other so-called social issues.  We are not addressing what should be the central issue of education in a campaign supposed to be about ideas.

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The Lost Election Issue  

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