Vail Daily column: Politics and education
May 1, 2014
When it comes to education policy, the land of politics is a strange, strange place. Most people think they are education experts just because they went to school, and politicians are no exception to that rule.
Our elected officials come from all walks of life. Careers like law, auto salespersons, construction contractors, small business owners, firefighters and law enforcement professionals, academics, even former educators — you name it, and the general assembly probably has someone who has done (or is doing) that job.
In a sense, it was designed to be this way. Our democratic form of government was set up as a republic, so that legislatures would represent and make key decisions for the citizens of the state.
Historically, our two major political parties have both had different, and also very important, roles when it came to education. The Democratic Party has supported increased funding levels for schools. Also, Democrats have had a strong commitment to public education as an important societal institution for equity, ensuring that every child in our country has access to quality education as the gateway for opportunities in adulthood.
Republicans have also had an important role when it comes to education. Traditionally, Republicans have valued communities and families. Many Republicans feel strongly that the best decisions for schools are made at the local level and closest to the students. They are wary of big government, top-down solutions to local issues. Through the years, Republicans have been supportive of community schools, while rightfully demanding that schools be fiscally responsible and that public funds be used effectively.
THE BIZARRO POLITICS OF EDUCATION TODAY
When both sides of the aisle stand up for their respective traditional values toward education, turn away from extremist ideological policy agendas, and create a stable environment of both pressure and support for schools, then the quality of the system improves. We've seen this time and time again in the stories of successful systems inside and outside the United States.
Yet today, both our major political parties have abandoned their roots in favor of flashy, punitive, ideologically driven approaches that have no empirical basis. The constant churn of legislation coming out of both parties creates a chaotic swirl of disconnected and distracting approaches that actually makes the work of genuine quality in our schools all the more difficult.
Untested and unproven reforms, bureaucratic hoops, nonsensical regulations, unfunded mandates, intentional efforts to disrupt schools and the wholesale takeover of community decision making has, sadly, become the norm.
Both parties are to blame and should be held accountable for this change.
Many Democratic politicians have lost their commitment to community schools and instead opt to advance punitive policies of ranking and punishing schools, teachers, and students as a mechanism for improvement. Democrats are also complicit in the intentional dismantling of our community school system through market-theory based policies. These efforts weaken your public school systems' ability to carry out its mission of providing a quality education for every student. Perhaps even worse, they are returning our schools and communities to the era of racial segregation.
Republican politicians should equally draw our ire. Abandoning their commitment to local autonomy and community decision making, Republicans have been complicit in the construction of massive bureaucratic systems of testing and reporting that takes the notion of "big government" to a whole new level. Republicans, it would seem, have become completely willing to forgo their values of community and fiscal responsibility if it means an opportunity to take a shot at the teachers' union or to build another big data "rank-shame-punish" system.
And, then there are the influencers behind the scenes: Corporations, big money and the ideologically driven nonprofits fueled by them. Philanthropy for public education can absolutely be a good thing, but decisions about "how" and "for what purpose" should be vested in and vetted by the community. The American education system was intentionally designed as a "public good," with decisions made at the local level for the good of the community — not as an ideological and experimental playground for those with the mightiest bank accounts.
THE WAY FORWARD
If our schools are to achieve the kind of systemic quality and greatness our kids deserve, then we, as citizens, need to get the priorities straight for both of our major political parties and set our system on a better path.
We must demand a Democratic Party position that stands up for community education, teachers and adequate funding. We must also demand a Republican Party that stands up for community decision-making, genuine quality, and sustainable spending practices.
"Blue" or "red" — we all love our children and want great schools for them. It doesn't matter what political label any person choses to put behind their name. Our state has an incredible system of community schools filled with caring and dedicated education professionals. Instead of working on the next political educational misfire in an attempt to disrupt, discredit, disparage or dismantle our schools, we need to be working to build them up, support them and make them better.
"All politics is local" is a common phrase in U.S. politics. Locally, we can set aside the extremism and choose according to what is best for our children, our students.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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