A funny thing happened on the way to the news cycle the past two weeks when the issue of education -- specifically, public schoolteachers and student loan relief -- maintained a presence on the political stage.
Because the conclusion among the Very Serious People is that the upcoming election is all about the economy, it was expected that the subject of education would quickly get the hook after last month's candidate sparring on the topic.
Yet after nearly a month in the limelight, we still see issues related to education hanging around stage left.
Education Just Won't Leave The Stage
For instance, just last week, all-but-certain Republican contender Mitt Romney bashed President Obama for "hiring more teachers." His comment was quickly affirmed and doubled-down this week when Romney surrogate, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, declared that there are places where we "need fewer teachers." Sununu apparently must be referring to a country other than America because where we live student population is at an all time high and will continue to grow in the near future.
Romney's pronouncement about desiring fewer schoolteachers was repeatedly rebuked by the Obama campaign on YouTube and Twitter, with Obama surrogate David Axelrod on CBS News asking "Does anybody really believe we don't need more teachers?" (Um yes, David, that is exactly what "some people" believe. So you have to name those people and counter with something stronger than a rhetorical question.)
Student loans also stayed in the headlines the last few days. With the interest rates on student higher education loans about to double, unless Congress acts before July 1, the issue has now become yet another front where Republican lawmakers in DC push back against any opportunity to advance the interests of ordinary Americans.
At a campaign stop at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, President Obama criticized Republicans for stalling on student loan relief and declared to his student audience that keeping the interest on their loans from going up was "the No. 1 thing Congress should do for you."
Republicans in Congress responded to the president's insistence on student loan relief with a raspberry this week when John Kline, who heads the House committee responsible for education, penned an op-ed at Politico declaring, basically, that all deals on student loans are off. Kline's solution for the student loan crisis -- now a $1 trillion issue, surpassing even the nation's credit card debt -- is to "take politicians out of the college-cost equation and base student loan interest rates on the free market."
These are the same Republicans, mind you, who have no problem supporting massive government subsidies to Big Oil and an Export-Import Bank that, according to The Wall Street Journal, "doles out billions of dollars of taxpayer-backed loans, loan guarantees, and insurance" to big businesses every year.
Nevertheless, with education staying stubbornly on the election front, it's clear that Republicans are going to make it yet another barb to sling at Democrats. But what's not clear is what Democrats are going to do about that.
Republicans, Democrats "Copy Each Other" On Education
Despite the recent back and forth between the political parties, differences of opinion on education are generally quite narrow.
As veteran education reporter Alyson Klein explained in the pages of Education Week, "Back in Massachusetts, then-Gov. Mitt Romney proposed ideas on turnarounds and teacher quality that closely mirror proposals that President Barack Obama put forth just a few years later."
In another blog post, Klein noted, "Romney himself praised Obama for being strong on merit pay and choice -- two issues that really rankle teachers' unions -- in an interview with People magazine."
Another seasoned edu-journalist, Jay Mathews of The Washington Post, observed that "Romney, Obama are education twins."
"Republican and Democratic presidential candidates," Mathews noted, "have been happily copying each other since a group of Democratic governors (including Bill Clinton) started the school accountability movement in the 1980s and several Republican governors (including George W. Bush) joined in."
And one may ask, "Where has that gotten us?" Not much, based on gains in student achievement, (pdf) as measured by National Assessment of Education Progress.
Regarding higher ed, the parties have chosen to square off -- not on the issue of the spiraling costs of college or the mounting levels of student loans -- but over how to "balance" student loan relief with cuts somewhere else in the federal budget.
When it comes to Pell grants, which help the most needy students pay for higher education, the argument is equally piker in scope. As Matt Miller recently observed in The Washington Post, arguments between Republicans and Democrats about "modest Pell grant boosts" are "teeny steps" and not "remotely serious" attempts to solve a huge problem.
Unfortunately, no one is arguing that relieving students of the unfair cost of higher education is an investment this country should make that should be accepted without a need to "balance" it with cuts somewhere else.
Current Education Debates Miss The Bigger Picture
In trying to identify differences between the parties on education, many have stated, as Diane Ravitch just did in The New York Review of Books, that school vouchers have become a "third rail" in the education debate that separates candidates.
Of course, Romney and the Republicans can recast "vouchers" with another name as Trip Gabriel explains in the The New York Times. In North Carolina for instance, vouchers are being reintroduced as"tax credits."
But as Ravitch points out there's a much bigger debate Democrats are refusing to engage in. For K-12, what Romney proposes can be summed up as "using taxpayer money to pay for private-school vouchers, privately-managed charters, for-profit online schools, and almost every other alternative to public schools."
For higher ed, the Romney plan, again, is to "encourage private sector involvement" by promoting for-profit colleges and letting commercial banks serve as the intermediary for federal student loans. Ravitch concludes:
Romney’s plan [for education] is animated by a reverence for the private sector. While little is said about improving or spending more on public education, which is treated as a failed institution, a great deal of enthusiasm is lavished on the innovation and progress that is supposed to occur once parents can take their federal dollars to private institutions or enroll their child in a for-profit online school.
The Real Goals Of The Romney, Republican Plan For Education
If you want to see where the Romney plan will lead us in K-12, cast your eyes upon Louisiana. Louisiana’s new voucher plan, already approved by the state legislature and poised to be signed by the supportive Governor Bobby Jindal, "directly defunds public education," according to an analysis by Kristin Rawls at AlterNet.
The Louisiana plan, Rawls explains, is "so wide in scope that it could eventually cut the state’s public education funding in half." And rather than creating more equity in the system, it will likely "increase inequality" because "the poorest students will get the same amount of tuition assistance as middle-income students. And in fact, since poorer areas of the state usually have lower per capita student spending than other parts of the state, the poorest students could receive less funding than their wealthier peers."
A recent article at Reuters describes the Louisiana plan as a "bold bid to privatize schools," siphoning taxpayer funds meant for education to " to industry trade groups, businesses, online schools and tutors, among others."
The article goes on to explain that among the likely recipients of public education funds are many small religious academies, such as New Living Word, "where students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such as chemistry or composition." Other likely recipients include the Upperroom Bible Church Academy, "a bunker-like building with no windows or playground," and Eternity Christian Academy, "where "first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains 'what God made' on each of the six days of creation."
In higher ed, Romney's plan will produce more institutions like Full Sail University and the University of Phoenix, providers that Romney has openly praised.
As the intrepid David Halperin explains at The Republic Report, the Romney plan for higher education "would allow federal financial aid -- presently about $32 billion a year -- to continue to flow to even the worst offenders in the industry, schools that lure veterans and low-income students with deceptive and coercive recruiting practices, provide low-quality programs, and leave many students with insurmountable debt and ruined lives."
Will Democrats Draw A Stark Line
Against the rapacious, greed-driven plan for education that Romney and the Republicans are pushing on the country, Obama and the Democrats are responding with . . . what? "R triple T?"
As another article from Education Week explains, the president's signature program, and other education initiatives, are very much "works in progress," at best, and "divisive" to say the least. Many of the recipients of the grant money are falling short of deadlines to impose new policies and erect grandiose structures, and none of those recipients can claim a cause-and-effect relationship of these costly new ventures to actual improved results in student achievement and well being.
For instance, this week, RTTT recipient Tennessee proclaimed its highly controversial teacher evaluation program a success. But if you read through the report, available here, it's apparent that success is defined purely on the basis of erecting the program, not on any direct services to students.
In fact, during this implementation of RTTT, Tennessee's results worsened. According to the most recent NAEP results, the state "dropped from 45th to 46th in the nation in fourth-grade math; 39th to 41st in fourth-grade reading; 43rd to 45th in eighth-grade math; and 34th to 41st in eighth-grade reading."
In the face-off between the Romney and Obama plans for education what is clear is that the Republicans are playing a long game while the Democrats settle for the scrimmage line. While Republicans plod inexorably toward the dismantling of our public education system -- K through college -- Democrats are fumbling with duct-tape-and-string measures that show little evidence of real results for children.
With this year's election turning into a "crapshoot," that's not a place where Democrats want to be, parsing "measured progress" while the fate of our children becomes more and more defined by a right wing mandate for restricting opportunity to the elite alone. Indeed, that Democrats are playing along with this ground shifting is damning to the party and deeply hurtful to the American public and its future well-being.
In the education arena, it's long past time for Democrats to go bold in their opposition to Republicans, to call them out as active agents in the dismantling of public schools, and to call for a renewed commitment to the best education that can be provided equally to children and young people everywhere.
Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/jeffbcdm