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Education and the Election | The Nation

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Education and the Election

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For all the talk about schools in the 2000 presidential campaign, the federal government has historically had only a minor role in school policy. Of all school funding, only about 7 percent comes from the Feds; the rest is almost entirely state and local. But federal policy has nonetheless become crucially important, both in setting a tone that states may follow and in designating how federal funds may be spent.

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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Vouching for vouchers; Elizabeth Warren for president; three kinds of Republican idiots; Borgesian grammar

As thirty-six states contemplate privatization measures, public schools are on the defensive.

While the front-runners, Bush and Gore, share the same emphasis on the school as the locus for improving children's prospects and reducing the economic inequities children face, the differences between them are considerable. If Clinton was the original New Democrat--a candidate pulling his party to the center--Bush may turn out to be the quintessential New Republican, trying to take his party from the opposite direction toward the same general target. Bush does support school prayer, backed a voucher proposal in Texas and clearly still favors school choice in all its forms, but the most concrete element of his platform, first announced at a conference of Latino business leaders in Los Angeles last fall, would underline school accountability by taking all federal Title I money from low-performing schools--those that did not improve test scores for three years--and give it in the form of vouchers to the families of the disadvantaged students that Title I is supposed to help. Unlike with Bradley's Title I plan, the parents could then use those funds (worth about $1,500 per student) to pay for after-school tutoring or help pay tuition for private school.

The Bush school-voucher proposal is quite similar to the voucher plan that his brother Jeb, the Governor of Florida, got through his state's legislature early in 1999, and that was launched in a few schools last fall. It allows children in the state's lowest-performing schools--always measured by test scores--to get the $4,000 the state spends on their education and use it to attend any school, public or private. Putting aside the question of the substantive merits of such plans, what's significant in the political context is that they are being pushed not as all-purpose free-market solutions, which was the classic conservative argument, but rather as equity and opportunity for poor children trapped in terrible schools, and as the logical next step in making schools accountable. The Florida law, passed with the support of the Urban League in Miami and the votes of some black Democrats in the Florida legislature, reflects the growing support for vouchers in minority communities and among black and Latino leaders.

It was no accident that Bush first made his pitch to Latinos in Los Angeles. If he's elected and the Republicans retain control of Congress, you can expect to see proposals linking school choice, accountability and the plight of poor children near the top of the 2001 agenda. Even if those proposals fail, choice for poor children in poor schools will confront Democrats, most of whom are far too much in thrall to the teachers' unions, with an increasingly tough moral and political challenge among their low-income and minority constituents. The issue can leave them "arguing that kids should be forced to go to failing schools," said Tom Loveless, an education policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "That really is a hard argument to defend."

Gore, who has the strong support of unions, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, vehemently opposes vouchers--he berated Bradley for having supported experimental voucher proposals when he was in the Senate. Perhaps because of Bradley's presence in the early primaries, Gore has also been pushing school proposals that look more generous than Clinton's, among them a $115 billion Education Reform Trust Fund (from the politically bottomless budget surplus) to finance increased federal school spending over the next ten years, including $50 billion for "universal" preschool programs. Some of the money would also go to raise teacher salaries, create a national teacher corps (an idea recycled from the sixties) and reduce class sizes, a mantra beloved by both teachers and parents, despite its so-far unproven results. In addition, there are Gore's longstanding attempts to bring technology into the schools, wire every classroom and abolish the digital divide.

Those proposals, particularly for expanded preschools, combined with Gore's record of support for after-school programs, restore a piece of the children's issue to the larger picture, but only a piece. The presumption going into this election--a presumption widely accepted these days by politicians, editorial writers and many others--is that with the possible exception of marginally expanded healthcare and increases in the earned-income tax credit, the only real instrument for furthering social and economic equity is education. Yet while education necessarily plays a major role, and while schools should not be allowed the implicit alibi that some kids can't learn, the schools cannot do it all. By definition half their students will be below average on whatever test is given: It should also be obvious that what children bring to school from home, from the community and from the culture is as important as what they find in school; that not all jobs will be royal roads to high-tech riches; and that the ills of the economy and society can't all be addressed in the classroom. It's those issues, issues that always informed the politics of the left, that have been leached out of the national debate.

For anyone who wants to measure the success of the "Reagan Revolution," their absence is one important indicator. But there's another as well. For more than a decade, the political debate (as opposed to the educators' debates) about reform within the schools has largely been an argument between center and right: charters and tougher standards as alternatives to vouchers and the free market; increased federal aid for middle-class college students (which is mostly a direct subsidy to colleges) as opposed to the Republicans' across-the-board tax cuts and no boost in federal aid at all. The old progressive side of the case, reinforced and updated by critics like Alfie Kohn--the case for what's called "authentic assessment," open-ended essay tests and portfolios as measures of achievement, hands-on curriculums and experiential learning, the de-emphasis of test-based achievement in favor of "the love of learning," all of which many educators still embrace--is largely missing from the political arena, as is any serious push to put more money into Pell Grants and other means-tested support for low-income college students. The political dynamics in Congress, even one controlled by Democrats, have always tended to allow districts to convert Title I and other funds ostensibly earmarked for poor children into general aid. That makes the needs of the disadvantaged, both in the cities and in rural areas, both in schools and out, even more crucial in any liberal agenda. The urgency of these needs is apparent from the recent findings of the Growing Up in Poverty Project at Berkeley and Yale, which show the detrimental effects on children's social growth and school readiness when they are forced into inadequate daycare after their mothers have left welfare.

The center has in most cases prevailed over the right in debates about education reform. Only two states have voted for vouchers. But many state officials, fearing the impending consequences on middle-class students of their high school exit exams and their other whips-and-chains reforms, are now having sober second thoughts and either postponing the fatal day, lowering the requirements or dropping them altogether. That could soon raise a whole new set of issues: If test scores don't rise appreciably or if the current reforms are otherwise perceived to fail--if the center doesn't hold--who gets the next shot, and in what way? Some teachers believe the whole high-stakes testing drive is simply a setup for the vouchers to come. In California some Silicon Valley deep pockets are already collecting signatures for another voucher initiative. But there also seems to be a renewed awareness that the schools can't do it all, and that the broader lives of children must be addressed. The choice between those two courses may be the real education issue for the coming years, both in the states and nationally. And so far, our serious presidential candidates are hardly discussing that at all.

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