The State of Education in Our Union

– Curtis Tuden

schoolAs a high school teacher I am interested in education policy and would like to help others understand its influence on our nation’s schools. The President’s State of the Union address and responses from other elected officials comprise the relevant political perspectives of our nation’s leaders. Their speech transcripts can be analyzed to reveal where party leaders stand on specific issues. This report details the Presidents address and responses from Republican Cathy McMorris Rogers, Libertarian Party executive director Wes Benedict, Tea Party members Rand Paul and Herman Cain, as well as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s State of the Commonwealth address. In sum, the current state of Education in our union can be more fully appreciated.

Barack Obama mentioned Education in his first sentence before Congress by alluding to teachers whose efforts helped produce this country’s highest graduation rate in more than three decades. It was one of many positive reflections used early on to placate a national audience divided by economic hardship.

Like all topics, Education was tied to finance in some ways. Increased funding for schools was the only positive result of the recently passed House budget mentioned by the President. This indicates bipartisan support. Future financial commitments were also indicated to be part of reducing inequality in access to higher education, especially for veterans. Mostly broad assertions, they led to Obama’s most significant Education proposal: make high quality pre-K available to every four year old in America. Bipartisan support of this as a financial investment is developing amongst the country’s governors. Political realities in the House suggest federal organization may not be coming soon but an executive council will certainly be utilized. What their ideas or influence will be remains unknown.

Other Education highlights include connecting 99% of students with high-speed broadband, capping student loan payments to 10% of income, and developing job training through apprenticeships. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded all through these vague declarations so expect more details to come out soon. They already play a role in Race to the Top, an innovation and incentives driven federal program. Surprisingly, the Common Core initiative was not referenced as schools all over the country work to incorporate new federal material. Hopefully this is not being overlooked. Overall, in a speech full of pandering to both sides of the aisle, Education programs seem to have more common ground than most issues.

The four non-Democrat responses reveal this. Each had very little opposition to the President’s remarks or record on education. Obviously Congresswoman Rogers, Senator Paul, Herman Cain, and Wes Benedict do not have as much air-time as the President but proportionally, each mentioned Education less than Obama. All called him out for failures in Economic, Energy, Military, and Healthcare ventures. That Education went unscathed further suggests bipartisan support for equal access to high quality learning opportunities.

What’s noteworthy however is that Congresswoman Rogers and Senator Paul both expressed support for school choice programs, which contradict equal access. The whole point of school choice is to see schools as unequal. Competition for access to the best sounds like a good, free market influence but in innovative Education circles that is just not true. Collaboration is the key to innovation. Collaboration is fostered by equity. Competition, while good for capitalists, is not appropriate for students and teachers. Look for this understanding to spread and possibly limit support for charter schools and their inequitable distribution of resources.

Despite school choice advocacy, Rogers and Paul are actually far closer to the President’s perspective overall. Herman Cain, selected to give the “official” Tea Party response, did not mention Education even once. It’s tough to explain that. And if you thought the Libertarian Party and Tea Party were similar, think again. Libertarian Party executive director Wes Benedict believes government should have absolutely no involvement with Education. That’s tough to even think about in America.

Unthoughtful and radically destructive political leadership appear to be exiting the national stage and its about time. That opposition leadership is so close to Democratic interests should be understood as a positive sign. Current gridlock in Washington D.C. needs common ground to build on and our schools need the attention if it comes with positive action. I close with a nod to Governor Deval Patrick’s State of the Commonwealth address because Massachusetts continually comes out ahead in student achievement. Patrick’s swan song offers a strategy for growth built on Education, Innovation, and Infrastructure. If we could all work together and govern for the long term at the national level I’m sure our students, teachers, and general community will prosper.

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