Why aren't the Democratic candidates talking about school reform?
The dog that didn’t bark in the Democratic presidential primary debates was the national crisis in our public schools. The candidates did lots of yelping (much of it thoughtful) on a variety of other looming calamities: economic inequality, social justice, climate change and foreign relations to name a few.
But does anyone think our nation can confront any of these challenges over the long haul without an electorate that is literate? Ours is not. According to the most reliable and shocking national data, only one-third of fourth and eighth grade students in public schools are reading at proficient levels.
So why did the candidates, progressives and moderates alike, avoid any serious discussion of K-12 school reform? True, the moderators didn’t ask them specifically about it. But impassioned words were spoken about school busing and shootings, and the candidates were hardly shy about saying pretty much anything they wanted.
Nor does the explanation lie in national indifference. Polls put the appalling condition of public education high on the list of voter concerns. We’re even willing to pay more taxes for better schools.
Rather, I think the candidates’ reluctance to wade in on school reform is because they — and we the people — are nowhere near agreement on what national school reform should look like. Worse, we are politically phobic about even the mention of national K-12 policies. We remain fixated on “local control” of public schooling despite all evidence and reason to the contrary.
For example, how does it make sense for 50 states, much less 14,000 or so local school districts, to go their own way in deciding what should be learned in reading, math and science, and how to measure whether students are learning? Yet, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was demonized and considerably gutted because it sought to put the country on a path to common standards and tests.
NCLB was imperfect but at least a start. Today, we can’t even blame U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as inept as she is, for our nation’s bipartisan dumbing down of standards and tests at the state and local levels.
The presidential candidates are also afraid to confront the lack of adequate school funding nationwide. Most public school students — disproportionately but not exclusively poor and minority — suffer because their local schools can’t afford basic necessities like higher teacher pay and additional instruction for struggling readers. If you don’t think that’s a national issue, look at what has happened to the recommendations of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (the Kirwan Commission).
There’s relatively little dispute that the commission laid out a bold and promising blueprint for reform. But it’s expensive, and the governor and General Assembly are loath to raise taxes. At the past session in Annapolis, they funded only a meager fraction of the recommendations.
If that’s the fate of adequate funding in a wealthy blue state like Maryland, consider the dire consequences in almost all of the other states where school spending is well below ours. In fact, underfunding and inequality of educational opportunity is a national disaster and disgrace.
If the presidential candidates had the courage to confront the irrationality and ineffectiveness of local control, what might they have said at the debates? Some campaign position papers call for increased federal aid. But no candidate has staked out a strong platform for the indispensable national role in K-12 reform.
They should be proposing a “new education federalism” with three pillars. One: national standards and tests. Two: federal funding and requirements that would guarantee adequate school spending nationwide. And three: robust national research and development that would hold all states and local districts accountable for spending the funds cost effectively.
This is no political fantasy. Local control would survive and thrive. The feds would only set what is to be learned and guarantee adequate funding. State and local districts could still prescribe how the standards would be met and the funds spent, including which teachers to hire and which evidence-based teaching practices to utilize.
That’s how it’s done in other countries whose students far outperform ours. Let’s face it: in K-12 policy, the U.S. is a politically underdeveloped nation. We must do better and a courageous educator-in-chief could make it happen.
Kalman R. Hettleman, a member of the Kirwan Commission, is the author of “Mislabeled as Disabled: The Educational Abuse of Struggling Learners and How WE Can Fight It” (Radius Book Group).