Political Parties Present Clear Choices For Education In 2016 – So Far

Jeff Bryant

For years, there’s been an agreement – a “Washington consensus” – among Beltway policy makers and political elites that America’s schools are in “crisis” and only a punitive program of standards, testing and accountability can remedy it.

Both Republicans and Democrats bought into that narrative and adopted it into their party platforms.

So, as seasoned edu-journalist Jay Mathews of The Washington Post has long observed, “Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been happily copying each other” on education policy and political rhetoric.

This phenomenon started, according to Mathews, when “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.”

But there are signs this era may be coming to a close.

As prospective and declared candidates in the 2016 presidential race kick off their campaigns, what we’re hearing on education policy is a clear division between Republicans and Democrats. So far, one party is doubling down on continuing failed accountability policies, while the other party calls for an investment agenda to relieve years of grueling austerity and ineffective policy branded as “reform.”

Can you guess which party is promoting which?

The Walker Way On Education

On the Republican side, likely presidential candidate Scott Walker, the current governor of Wisconsin, touted his education credentials recently in an op-ed that appeared in an Iowa newspaper where it could get the attention of potential voters in that state’s critically important primary.

In the column, he brags about changing Wisconsin’s “broken system” that provided teachers with some job protections, what he calls “tenure.” He calls attention to a “Wisconsin Teacher of the Year” who he says was let go because of the “old system” but now would be protected in his new and improved plan. And he claims to have increased “the number of quality education choices all over Wisconsin.”

He calls for “moving money out of Washington” so it can be spent “at the local and state level” where it “is more efficient, more effective and more accountable.” And he calls for ” big, bold reforms” like school vouchers that allow tax dollars to flow to private and religious schools.

“The reforms are working,” he declares. “Schools are better. Graduation rates are up. Third-grade reading scores are higher.”

What Walker doesn’t mention is that he presided over the “biggest cuts to education” in Wisconsin’s history. His most recent state budget proposal takes an additional $127 million bite out of education spending next year, according to state news outlets, causing school districts across Iowa to consider where they will have to cut next – staff lay-offs, teacher pay, or program reductions.

While he promotes the idea of sourcing school funding decisions at the local level, he actually enacted a freeze on local spending that “greatly restricted schools’ ability to raise property taxes to make up for the lost aid.” The result was another $800 – $900 million cut to school districts.

In higher education, Walker plans to cut $300 million from the state’s prized university system while funneling $500 million to a basketball stadium. As a result, as Think Progress reports, colleges across the state are now planning faculty layoffs, offering massive employee early retirement packages, and eliminating student majors and degree programs.

Walker’s claims of making education improvements are way overblown. When Alyson Klein at Education Week looked into reading scores and graduation rates in the state, she found a mixed bag at best. “Wisconsin trend lines in fourth grade reading on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (aka the Nation’s Report Card) have increased during Walker’s tenure, but their rate of improvement … before Walker came in … are almost identical,” Klein writes.

“Graduation rates tell a similar story. Wisconsin’s graduation rate is up, but the nation’s is up too. And in fact, the Badger State is growing a little slower than the national average.”

And that teacher whose job Walker says his new system would save? First, she wasn’t really a Teacher of the Year, Salon’s Joan Walsh reports. Second, she wants him to stop telling this story. “I am hurt that this story is being used to make me the poster child for this political agenda,” she says, according to The Huffington Post.

The Christie Education Chronicles

Another prospective Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also has an education agenda he wants to bring to the nation. In a recent speech reported on in The New York Times, Christie claims to know what “real education reform for America looks like.”

If it looks like what has taken place in New Jersey, a Christie presidential administration would be disastrous for the country.

First off, it’s troubling, to say the least, when a top government official equates classroom teachers to terrorists, as Christie recently did. Watch the video here to see him agree with a questioner’s contention that the nation’s system of education was a “threat” of equal proportion to ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Then, if you can stomach it, listen further to hear him berate teachers as “part-time workers getting a full-time salary.”

Actually, under the Christie administration, New Jersey has taken a massive retreat from its duties to fund school systems equitably, according to top Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker. Although New Jersey has been “among the nation’s most progressive in terms of school funding,” Baker writes, that equitable distribution of funds has “slipped … dramatically.

“Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions for all else,” Baker concludes. “Money matters. And the apparent dramatic retreat from equity in New Jersey over a relatively short period of time raises serious concerns.”

New Jersey teacher and popular blogger Mark Weber also reviews Christie’s education record and finds a troubling account. “No politician in the history of New Jersey has done more to demonize and denigrate the teaching profession than Chris Christie,” Weber writes. “This is a man who compared us to drug dealers, told us we were greedy, told our students we didn’t care about their learning, and said we only care about having summers off.”

He’s also a government official who has little respect for the law, at least for how it is to be applied in education. As Weber explains, Christie has steadfastly refused to find the money the state is legally obligated to provide to educate “thousands of students living in poverty, or who don’t speak English at home, or who have special education disabilities … Every year, Chris Christie has refused to fund this law, with profound consequences” and to the point where the state is now “a collective $7 billion behind what the law itself says they need to adequately educate our children.”

What Would Jeb Do To Education?

Of all Republican presidential candidates, declared and prospective, the one most likely to put education in front of his appeal is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Bush is indeed a “big K-12 dog,” as an Education Week headline called him when he officially announced his candidacy. Bush “has perhaps the most extensive and complicated track record in education among all the Republican presidential hopefuls,” the article states.

In his announcement speech, according to The New York Times, Bush pointed to “his record in Florida of introducing a taxpayer-financed school voucher program” and “expanding charter schools.” His campaign’s debut video also champions the Florida school voucher program.

“Here’s what Jeb Bush really did to public education in Florida,” Valerie Strauss explains on her blog at The Washington Post.

First, Bush appears to be averse to calling public schools “public,” Strauss finds, preferring the terms “government schools” and “monopoly” instead. Bush “likes outsourcing public education to for-profit education companies who open public charter schools but run them like a business,” she notes. “But he doesn’t mention a 2014 report that Florida charter schools had math and reading test scores that were either no better or worse than traditional public schools. Or that under his program of assigning letter grades to schools based on test scores, a disproportionate number of charters get failing academic letter grades from the state. Or that Florida’s charter sector has been marred by numerous closures of charters – some even during the school year – and repeated financial mismanagement scandals.”

Then Strauss turns to education professor Sherman Dorn who provides a more scholarly analysis of the effect Bush’s policies had on education in Florida.

“Governor Bush and his allies generally point to fourth-grade reading as the most important story, and that is where one can see large increases in average scale scores, not only across cohorts of fourth-grade students but in comparison with the national sample of fourth-grade students,” Dorn explains.

But those claims reduce to spin and hype when you go further into the data. “The bottom line,” Dorn finds, other than those fourth grade reading scores, for “most other independent test-score measures, the picture is less impressive.” And what in fact likely produced the reading gains, Dorn explains, is the Bush administration’s decision to invest in an expensive program to provide technical assistance in reading during the early grades. But he doesn’t like to mention that.`

“Bush may become the loudest proponent yet of turning public education into a for-profit enterprise,” writes Matthew Pulver for Salon. “During his eight years as governor, Jeb Bush was a leader in dismantling public education,” Pulver argues and he points to a recent article in The New Yorker that found Bush’s education program was just a piece of “his larger agenda to privatize state-run services, from prisons to Medicaid.”

Back to Pulver: “Bush’s plan is to go full neoliberal, to sell off the State’s largest remaining public venture to corporations, including his friends and associates.”

The Democratic Contrast

In sharp contrast to Republican proposals to cut education spending, denigrate teachers, withhold the resources schools need, and institute a plan to privatize as many schools as possible, education rhetoric we’re hearing from the Democratic side is somewhat scant. But at least it’s starting with the right theme – investment.

Rising to the top of every Democratic Party presidential candidate’s agenda is a plan for debt-free college. “Democrats look to make debt-free college the key campaign issue of 2016,” reports The Guardian and cites a recent resolution from Senate Democrats that “adds pressure on potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidates to either endorse the resolution or come up with a plan of their own.”

Front-runner Hillary Clinton, in particular, is counting on her proposal to alleviate student debt as a key selling point to her candidacy, according to Politico. Due to the influence of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, according to a different Politico source, the Clinton team has a plan that “goes further than what either of Clinton’s Democratic opponents, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have proposed.”

Another unified message from Democrats is to expand access to high-quality preschool education for low-income children. Here again, the Clinton campaign is out in front with a plan that would, according to The New York Times, “give incentives to states to provide public preschool to children whose family incomes are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The plan would be directed at the half of the country’s 8.1 million 3- and 4-year-olds who are not currently enrolled in pre-kindergarten, her campaign said.”

Note that none of the education related rhetoric coming from the Democratic side is about cracking down on schools with more “accountability” and privatizing them through a smokescreen of “choice.”

Even Hillary Clinton – who some fear, due to her close ties with the Obama administration, would continue the prevailing policies – has yet to endorse a bipartisan platform including radical Republican ides.

In her campaign announcement, as my colleague Robert Borosage notes in a blog post for the Campaign for America’s Future, “Her education agenda – universal pre-k, respecting teachers and investing in schools, affordable college – had no mention of the school choice, punitive high-stakes testing, and assault on public schools and their teachers that has been the hallmark and horror of the Obama years.”

Of course, we’re at a very early stage in what is sure to be a long and grueling presidential contest. But on education issues, so far the contrast between the two contesting parties couldn’t be clearer. Let’s hope Democratic Party candidates keep it that way.

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