Platform diving: Comparing the party positions on education

Thanks to Teachers College and EdWeek for sponsoring and webcasting the recent debate between the top educational advisors for McCain and Obama: Lisa Graham Keegan and Linda Darling-Hammond, respectively. Teachers College President, Susan Fuhrman (my colleague on the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching) moderated the lively and informative discussion.The debate is archived at Edweek.org.

One point of agreement between the two speakers was how little coverage the news media has given to the candidates when they do speak on their education plans. Up to this point, the public has had to piece together the education strategies from stump speeches, sound bytes, and now surrogates.

The Teachers College debate prompted me to take a closer look at the what the major party platforms had to say about the future of education in America. Many people dismiss the platforms, but according to Richard M. Valelly (2004), Professor of Political Science at Swathmoore College in an essay posted by PBS:

Party platforms, though long and full of promises, do however offer vital clues to the future politics of a presidential administration. Careful studies by political scientists have shown that the majority of the winning party’s platform is acted upon in some way or another, either through executive order, budgetary and policy proposals, proposed legislation, or successfully enacted legislation.

The first outstanding feature of my platform comparison was how much more the Republicans have to say about education and in much greater detail. The Democrats, on the other hand, tend to diffuse their ideas about education throughout the platform document, mentioning it, sometimes just in passing, under several other headings. I also found the Republican’s web version easier to navigate than the Democrats’ electronic book.

The Republicans define education as “a parental right, a state and local responsibility, and a national strategic interest.” Indeed, the rights and roles of parents is a dominant theme throughout the policy statement. I found many things in the platform with which I could, at some level, agree. For example, schools do need to reclaim their role in civic education; preparing young people to be thoughtful, responsible citizens. I also agree with the need for periodic testing of students on the fundamentals, freedom for families to choose homeschooling, spreading and strengthening K-16 councils and dual credit programs, and more support for community colleges.

Plenty in there for me to disagree with, too, however. If education is truly a “national strategic interest,” then we should be willing to pursue it with the level of funding, including support for research and development, and cabinet-level oversight, as we do national defense or homeland security. The rest of the document clearly does not indicate this level of support.  The document does make the teaching and testing of phonics a policy point. This is the political equivalent of campaigning on the principle that every doctor will prescribe aspirin to every patient, and the government is going to do periodic blood testing to make sure.

Republicans officially oppose collective bargaining agreements for teachers. I teach in a state where teachers are prohibited from collective bargaining, and it has not helped us produce better schools than our counterparts. Nor has the lack of a union contract led to the removal of ineffective teachers. What’s keeping lousy teachers in schools is the lack of truly effective and efficient teacher evaluation systems.

As a pastor’s wife and practicing Christian, I believe in prayer. To call, as the Republicans do, however, to allow voluntary prayer in schools, means we as a society would have to be prepared to allow students and educators OF ALL FAITHS to pray in their respective ways without harassment or penalty:  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Yorubans, Jews, Satan-worshippers, cults, and the multiplicity of Christian denominations. Since the statement makes no stipulations here, should we take this position at literal face value, and what does that mean logistically for schools?

Central to the Democrats’ Platform is right of every child in America to a “world-class public education.” Their document stresses the imperative need for high quality teachers and effective principals in every school, especially high needs schools.  Toward that end, the Democrats would provide a free college education for teacher candidates. Moreover, they call for strengthening preparation, mentoring, and career ladders for educators after they enter the profession. The Dems support not only collective bargaining, but specifically due process for the removal of ineffective teachers, if systematic intervention does not yield results. Their platform also recognizes the special role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are still the primary source of Black professionals in the U.S., and the need for their continued support. The Democrats are unequivocable about their support for fully funding IDEA; while the Republican platform treats it as an unfortunate inherited responsibility to be minimally maintained.

The one statement that jumped out at me from the Democratic platform was in its position on teacher pay:

To reward our teachers, we will follow the lead of school districts and educators that have pioneered innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers [emphasis mine], not imposed on them. We will make an unprecedented national investment to provide teachers with better pay and better support to improve their skills and their students’ learning. We’ll reward effective teachers who teach in underserved areas, take on added responsibilities like mentoring new teachers, or consistently excel in the classroom.

My biggest disappointment with their education section is that is tends to downplay, almost to the point of patronizing, the role of parents in public education.

This is, of course, only an overview of the two platforms on education, but I wonder how many voters will take the time to even scan the platforms before deciding who should lead the country?  How many teachers are using them as primary documents for study in classrooms this semester? Should we be? I’d encourage those of you who haven’t yet to take the plunge.

Related categories: