Obama Democrats Still Grasping For A Populist Pitch For Education

Jeff Bryant

Reflecting on last night’s State of the Union address to the nation, most opinion outlets are declaring that President Obama is now more overtly resorting to a “populist message” to rally Democrats and appeal to independents who are frustrated with stalemate in Washington, DC.

The consensus opinion on the speech is that the President has now pivoted from conciliatory messages and bipartisanship to drawing “sharp contrasts with Republicans” on the most important issues of the day, with a “combative and populist tone.”

This is certainly true of at least three of the “four areas” the White House promised would be covered in the speech — manufacturing, energy, and “American values.”

For sure, populist messages related to the economy were loud and clear — reviving the nation’s manufacturing sector, pressing the case for government intervention, reforming the tax structure so rich people pay more. And these are indeed in sharp contrast to Republican proposals to allow businesses to ship more American jobs overseas, protect big polluters and loan predators, and coddle millionaires who pay less then their fair share for the infrastructure and services provided by the 99%.

The President deserves a lot of credit for taking policy arguments where they need to go — to clear distinctions based on progressive values versus the Republican devotion to corporate hegemony.

But when it came to the topic of education, the fourth “area” the White House promised to address, the President’s remarks were very much more tempered and fraught with compromise.

So yes, it’s good that President Obama has found a populist voice that contrasts sharply with Republican approaches to the economy, trade, government regulation, taxation, and other policies. But when it comes to education, he, and Democrats in general, continue to mumble.

Education’s Current Policy Miasma

As Education Week’s ever-useful Alyson Klein observed, the only “concrete K-12 policy” the President offered in his speech was to demand states raise mandatory attendance ages to 18 to help stave-off drop outs. The specific policy points related to higher ed, were for controlling college costs and linking community colleges into business partnerships.

The rest of the rhetoric was devoted to broad generalizations about teachers and how much they “matter.” None of this is necessarily wrong headed, but, as education journalist Dana Goldstein observed, it is particularly “underwhelming.”

Furthermore, the rhetoric demonstrates the extent to which meaningful debate about education policy has gotten stuck in a stale status quo of bipartisan talking points. As veteran education journalist Jay Mathews has observed, the President and his likely Republican opponent — Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney — can be described as “education triplets.”

The president and the two Republicans each have some unique ideas for schools, but by and large they support the test-driven, school-rating, pro-charter-school policy that has ruled the United States for more than a decade, no matter which party controlled the presidency or Congress.

For sure, among people who are most passionate about schools and educating children, debates are quite heated and full of conflict. But very little of that energy seems to resonate upward to the nation’s leadership — at least not in the same way that arguments about economics, immigration, and culture populate the platforms of virtually all major political campaigns.

Some would suggest that that’s a good thing, as policy matters concerned with the well being of children should eschew ideology and focus on “what works.” But with the crash and burn of No Child Left Behind — a policy built supposedly on a pragmatic solution to lift all children — it’s a good bet that fewer and fewer people continue to believe that. And Republicans certainly make no bones about pushing populist arguments for education policy (more about that later). So why should Democrats continue to disarm themselves before the fight even begins?

It’s not that people don’t care about education. According a preview of SOTU in McClatchy “more than four out of five Americans — 81 percent — say the president should focus his energies on domestic issues, according to a new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. That’s the highest in 15 years.” And education is a major domestic issue.

In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by Rasmussen, 60 percent of respondents cited “education” as “very important” — that ties other big issues such as taxes and Social Security, and out-polls immigration (49%), national security (48%), Afghanistan (24%), and Iraq (19%).

So there’s little reason to neglect populist arguments for education — and ample opportunity.

Stand Up for School Funding

One populist message that was certainly missing from the President’s address was the issue of school funding. States across the country have made the greatest cuts to public education spending since the Great Depression, and the effects have been devastating to schools, teachers, and students.

Seated in the box next to the President’s wife Tuesday night was Exhibit A for the case against funding cuts. Sara Ferguson, a classroom teacher from Chester-Upland school district in Pennsylvania, was the President’s guest as a representative of teachers and other staff members at her school who continued to keep working for their students when the state cut off funding for their jobs. At Huffington Post she writes:

Public schools and teachers need the basic resources necessary to effectively do their jobs. Our students deserve the best this country has to offer, and we all have a shared responsibility to make sure they receive it. However, too many politicians are balancing the budgets on the backs of students.

Certainly many teachers and parents feel as HelemGyn expressed in comments at Alexander Russo’s popular edu-blog that she wished “education funding had had more play in the SOTU since it’s a central issue facing state legislatures around the country. A compelling voice on why education needs to be funded adequately is needed now more than ever.”

Instead of neglecting the issue altogether, why didn’t the President make it an occasion to skewer conservative governors who keep violating their citizen’s right to a quality education: such as the Alabama governor who wants to siphon money meant for education to the state’s general funds. Or the Tennessee governor who contends that slashing teacher pay and dramatically increasing class sizes will actually improve teacher “effectiveness.” Or the Kentucky governor who cut education spending while preserving tax breaks for a Bible-themed amusement park.

This Administration, and Democrats in general, have a golden opportunity to take a strong stand for increasing funds to schools. They certainly make the argument for increasing funds for jobs, businesses, and retirees. That they continue to think it’s advantageous to neglect the welfare of school children is confounding.

Take on the Tyranny of Testing

Another compelling populist message missing from the President’s address was the role of standardized testing in education. The President gave this issue some due when he exhorted schools to “stop teaching to the test.” But as Monty Neil, director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, states, in comments to the Alyson Klein post cited above:

The other populist message still left out of the national debate is the role of standardized testing. Despite the President’s exhortation to “stop teaching to the test,” How can Obama not get the contradiction between calling on teachers to not to teach to the test and then insist that standardized test scores be a “significant” part of the evaluation of teachers? Clearly if teachers’ livelihoods are highly dependent on student scores, they will teach to the test, with all the negative consequence that Obama acknowledges. The contradiction is so blatant as to be absurd.
It is time to stop allowing Obama, Duncan, et al., from glibly skating over these contradictions.
Obama also wants fewer dropouts, but the evidence is clear that high-stakes testing increases dropping out (c.f., National Academy of Sciences report). Further, a school climate dominated by testing is often inhospitable to students, pushing them out of school. Evaluating teachers heavily by student scores will perpetuate that negative environment as teachers, to protect themselves from an irrational policy, try to avoid those students whose scores or school/learning put teachers at risk.

There is a small but growing rebellion against the mindless adherence to high-stakes standardized testing in every subject, in every grade, for every child. And just before the President’s address, this movement got a huge lift when the governor of the nation’s largest state, California’s Jerry Brown, called for limits on standardized testing.

Not only did Brown call the tests “too damn long,” noting that “second-graders take five days of tests. That’s longer than I spent on the bar exam. I think that’s absurd.” He also called out the whole notion behind testing. “They have this idea that schools are like businesses and if you set the right metrics, you can reward and punish and you get the outcome,” he said. “I don’t feel things quite work that way.”

Democrats ignore this issue at their own peril. While it’s understandable that Obama would approach the issue of high-stakes standardized testing with some trepidation — much of the administration’s education policy enforces the testing regime — he certainly has no problem pointing out the ineffectiveness of basing education on test-taking alone. He simply needs to take the next logical step to limiting the extent of testing.

Time to Draw the Line

Make no mistake about it, Republicans have their populist talking points about education nailed down:
* Creating more competition in the system with private school vouchers, charter schools, and for-profit education ventures.
* Limiting the role of the federal government.
* Allowing states to siphon the federal dollars away from high-needs students to other program areas.
* Curbing the rights of teachers to engage in collective bargaining and have due process (tenure) when their jobs are threatened.
Just to name a few.

So far, the Democrats response to this agenda is unclear.

With the President’s SOTU address, we are seeing the populist battle lines beginning to form. On jobs, the economy, taxation, and the social safety net, Democrats look like they are beginning to close ranks and press for measures that are in sharp contrast to the Republican platform supported by the 1%.

Time to make that populist pitch for education too.

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