Whistling Past the Ruins The Education Moment

Robert Borosage

The President went to Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia to deliver a speech on education, calling on Congress to fix and reauthorize No Child Left Behind by the fall.

The speech was a carefully modulated discussion of education reform that echoed themes from the Clinton years. We need to hold schools accountable, but not brand 82% failures. We need testing and standards, but not force teachers to teach to the test. We need to honor and reward good teachers, but get rid of the bad ones.

And of course, the president made the case for both reform and resources:

Now, for a long time we weren’t sure about how to give our kids that kind of education…. Some people thought if you just put more money into education that would solve the problem. And then the other side thought, money doesn’t matter; what we need is reform. In fact, there were those who argued that we should just dismantle the public education system altogether. Rather than working together, both sides remained locked in this stalemate year after year, decade after decade, and nothing much changed.

And then something began to happen in states and local schools districts. Instead of getting caught up in these old, stale debates, people began to agree that, you know what, we need both more money and more reform.

We need to change rules, standards and attitudes, said the President, and that will “cost some money. Fixing our failing schools costs money. It requires reform, but it costs some money. Recruiting and rewarding the best teachers will cost money. Making it possible for families to send their kids to college costs money. “

So the president pledged that despite his five year freeze on domestic spending, he will protect spending on education. “ A budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that’s sacrificing our country’s future. That would be a budget that sacrifices our children’s future. And I will not let it happen.”

Will not let it happen?

I know the White House wants to believe the recovery has started, but is it totally blind to the carnage taking place in schools and colleges across the country? States are cutting not just pre-K but kindergarten. Urban schools are headed to classes of 40 or 50 students. After school programs are getting slashed. Teachers are being laid off and facing harsh cuts in pay and benefits. Colleges are hiking tuitions, cutting assistance, and even reducing the number of students they’ll admit. And the state and local budget crisis is getting worse now that aid from the federal government is running out.

You’d think an education president would treat this as a national emergency. Convene Governors and Mayors from across the country. Meet with teachers and superintendents. Rally parents to join in protecting education investments. Call on Congress to provide targeted aid to states to protect school and university budgets.

One with a more populist temper might sensibly detail the damage being done, and call for levying a surcharge on the wealthiest Americans (or on financial speculation) to pay for emergency aid to the schools)

Will not let it happen?

It’s happening already. Deep and ruinous cuts in public school budgets. An accelerated departure of demoralized teachers, the best leaving first. College growing more unaffordable to more and more young people..

And the White House is rolling out an agenda for “this education moment,” while saying not one word about the carnage taking place in our schools across the nation. Whistling….across the ruins.

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