How Education Fares In The Democratic Party Platform

Jeff Bryant

Although education policy has not been a prominent issue in the current presidential race, the Democratic Party’s platform gives the subject some of its just due with a fairly extensive treatment.

In the current draft, which will be finalized on June 8 and 9, there are numerous mentions of education and a special section with over 1,000 words devoted to the topic.

Many are saying this platform “may be most progressive platform the Democratic Party may have ever had.” But is it progressive on education?

Let’s weigh the evidence.

First let’s examine how the Democratic Party platform differs from what’s proposed in the Republican Party’s platform.

The Republican document gets education policy wrong from with the very first sentence by asserting, “Parents are responsible for the education of their children.”

Although it’s true parents certainly need to be involved in their children’s education, have a voice in how schools are run, and take responsibility for encouraging and maintaining their children’s educational development, putting the sole burden for education on parents guarantees inequity of education opportunity and is, frankly, un-American.

Relegating education opportunity to “consumer rights” and “choice,” as the Republicans do, ensures those who are the wealthiest and most enabled in the system have the most opportunity, while less-well-off parents have the least. And since our country’s founding, the American tradition is for education to be a shared burden taken on by the entire population. Virtually every state’s constitution asserts government’s responsibility to provide for an education for elementary and secondary students, a precedent established by the Ordinance of 1785, which predates our national Constitution.

The rest of the Republican platform is studded with the usual bromides about “high standards,” “high expectations,” “accountability,” and “choice” with very little attention to governmental responsibilities for education.

In fact, Republicans bash government’s role in relation to spending on education, making a false assertion that $2 trillion expenditure by the federal government since 1965 has resulted in “no substantial improvement in academic achievement.” According to the best measure available, the National Assessment of Education Progress, scores are up over the past 40 years, and black and Hispanic students have made the greatest gains over that period.

Specific proposals in the Republican’s platform range from removing government financial support for higher education, to providing parents with vouchers to transfer their children out of the public system at taxpayer expense, to getting tough on teachers while leaving the profession open to un-credentialed, untrained recruits.

In other words, remove government’s responsibility to provide for a universally accessible, high quality, and equitable education for every child. Nothing progressive here.

Are Democrats any better?

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party’s platform falls short of asserting a bedrock philosophy for education.

Although those who drafted the document include a statement about the federal government’s role in “working towards an America where a world-class education is available to every child,” what’s missing is a statement defining education as a fundamental right and a collective responsibility.

As public education advocate Jan Resseger writes on her personal blog, Democrats should, at the very least, declare education to be a “common good” and call for “a comprehensive system … that serves all children and is democratically governed, publicly funded, universally accessible, and accountable to the public.”

But instead, the platform highlights a series of isolated issues that, although important, further the perception that education is mostly a technocratic endeavor rather than a moral and political imperative.

So, without a rudder to guide its education positions, how do the Democrats fare in their treatment of specific policy points?

The section devoted to education begins with higher education, which certainly has been a prominent issue in the presidential campaign. The writing is mainly focused on addressing the dramatic increase in the cost of higher education, calling it a “barrier” that government needs to help students overcome.

Specifically, the platform calls for free community college, which would guarantee at least a basic access to higher education opportunity. This idea has some practical validity, as is being demonstrated by the free community college program currently being run in Tennessee.

Nevertheless, the call for tuition-free community college, without extending it to four-year university education, falls short of the proposal made by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to provide for universal tuition-free college. Although the party’s presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton initially eschewed what Sanders proposed, she has since reconsidered and embraced the idea.

So on the subject of higher education, the Democratic platform needs to catch up with its candidates.

On the subject of college student loan debt – a key issue in turning out the vote from millennials – Democrats call for a Student Borrower Bill of Rights and a pledge to allow borrowers with student loans to discharge their debts in bankruptcy. These are admirable proposals but again fall short of the student debt “jubilee” that would reflect both the values upon which this nation was founded and the economic principles that have sustained it through its greatest periods of growth and prosperity.

The platform’s pledge to support “minority-serving” universities, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is worthy, although as classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene, on his personal site, advises those who drafted the document, “You guys may want to take a look at that whole ‘minority’ thing, since particularly in schools ‘minority’ also means ‘white’ at this point.”

The platform’s pledge to crack down on predatory for-profit colleges is also generally worthwhile; although, it’s not clear whether this puts them at odds with the Obama administration’s current effort to include Navient – the loan servicing giant with one of the worst track records for ripping off students – as one of the finalists to help overhaul federal student loan collection practices.

Regarding early childhood education and K-12, the platform lumps the two issues together, a mistake because states generally have no constitutional obligations to provide for preschool education.

For sure, providing high quality pre-K education to little children is vital, but not just for the sake of the “workforce,” as the platform seems to suggest.

Much of what is stated about K-12 education amounts to generalities that few can object to but don’t have much of a basis in research and enduring practice. Having “great Pre-K-12 schools in every ZIP code” is important but not without some consideration of what makes them “great.” Few would object to high standards but standards do little to actually ensure outcomes.

One of the few specifics in the platform is the call for mentoring programs, which certainly have some merit but seem an odd proposal to highlight in a document with national significance. One wonders, as Greene does in his assessment, “Which genius on the committee has a bunch of money sunk in some mentor-consultant business?”

The Democratic proposal wraps up with attention to the issue of charter schools, declaring support for “high-quality public charter schools” (who would support bad ones?) and opposition to “for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off public resources” – an empty rhetorical phrase because charters can operate as nonprofits while being connected to all sorts of profitable enterprises.

The issue of charter schools is complicated and hard to address in a broad document like a party platform. But here again, the platform authors could have reasserted the need for schools to be democratically controlled by and accountable to the entirety of the population that the school is intended to serve – which would be a clear statement of opposition to the rapidly expanding industrial approach to schooling being spread by large charter management companies.

In sum, the platform’s authors would be wise to consider advice of California education professor Julian Vasquez Heilig to focus on the solutions that have some basis in research.

So does the Democratic platform support education policies that are progressive? Currently, the best answer to that question is, “Maybe.”

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