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So What Is the Right Education Policy for a Democrat?

Ruy Teixera did me the favor of a nice plug in his useful and insightful blogThe Emerging Democratic Majority WebLog - DonkeyRising

In this post, he picks up on some discussions of General Clark's viability to suggest that Clark needs to claim own one key domestic issue as his own -- and he suggests that it be education. That's a good point -- actually, for any candidate. It follows on a point that Ruy has made in the past: that the Democratic campaign will have to be based on the "three E's" -- Economy, Environment, Education. (And 'ealth care!)

Of his three E's, education is the one that's still most in play. All of the candidates are working on how to talk about the economy, although I still believe that only John Edwards has a message and language that works equally well when the GDP is up and the unemployment rate down as when they're the other way around. (Perhaps the language will soon fall into the public domain.) On the environment, the advocacy and political groups such as the League of Conservation Voters are strong and have learned how to get their voters out, many of the issues are local, and Bush has made not the slightest attempt to cover his flank on any environmental issue, so that one almost takes care of itself. That leaves education, where Bush has made an effort, and where the alternative message is still a little unclear. As Ruy suggests, Clark could be the bearer of this message, but so could any of the other candidates. Usually governors are in the best position to talk knowledgeably about education, since they are actually running school systems, which is why Dean had such an instinctive sense that No Child Left Behind was a disaster. The candidates from the congressional party voted for it, but afterward, put it out of their mind until it comes up for reauthorization.

Education is a perfect example of the limits of the liberal politics of "more," as I discussed in a post a few days ago. Let's say, for example, that the Democratic message is that No Child Left Behind is a false promise because it's been under-funded. What does Bush do

if Karl Rove decides that message is working? It's easy enough: Bush will just announce a major new initiative to double the funding for NCLB, or even a supplemental appropriation, which he can then force all the Democrats to vote for. Another bipartisan achievement, and end of issue, even if not the end of the problem. Even if he doesn't do that, challenging NCLB just on the money accepts the premise that the Bush "accomplishment" on education is a solid success except for the unfortunate fact that we don't have enough money. The liberal alternative message is nothing more than the status quo -- Bush's status quo -- with more money to throw at problems. That's not a persuasive message, a winning message, or a message of change.

There's a lot wrong with NCLB, though, other than just lack of funding. The over-emphasis on testing, the incentives it creates to play Houston accounting with the numbers,, and the impossibility of using these statistics at the state or federal level to real judge whether a school is improving or failing. Still, as a friend reminded me in a response to something else I'd written about NCLB, a month or two ago, it is a breakthrough in federal education policy, because for the first time, the feds are focusing on the real problem in education, which is failing schools, the "achievement gap" between black and white students, and the perils of urban education. It's true; this is in sharp contrast to the old era when the main federal funding for schools was the formula-based Title I, which dribbled out some money to almost every school, and something more to those with the neediest students, but contained very few incentives for improvement.

So the Democratic message on No Child Left Behind is inevitably a complicated one: the gist of it is the right idea, and we believe in holding failing schools accountable, but the funding is inadequate and the incentives wrong. The only thing that might make this a politically workable message is that it is almost exactly what parents are hearing from their kids' teachers and principals in every community in America. (A Google News search is still a good indicator of how this is playing out in the real world.)

But there is another area of education where the problem is easier to define and Bush has done absolutely nothing: higher education. As in the early 1990s, we are facing a crisis in affordability of higher education, as college costs continue to go up at double-digit rates. Most politicians, and certainly all the presidential candidates, can speak of this issue with passion: the passion of a father faced with a tuition bill from Stanford or Brown. Because that's what most of them are, or are about to be, or have recently been.

Yet today's crisis is less in elite institutions (where tuitions are still going up, but aid is more plentiful, student loan interest rates low, and jobs available after graduation), but in the public sector. According to the College Board, tuition and board at public four-year institutions rose 13% last year, compared to 5% among private four-year institutions. And the cost of two-year public colleges, which usually are pretty steady, suddenly took a 14% jump last year. This is a big deal. Everyone knows that elite four-year colleges are expensive, and usually worth it. But public colleges are something else. They are supposed to be reasonably affordable to people in state, and in many electorally critical states, the public system of higher education had been a source of great pride. The combination of two- and four-year institutions gives students all sorts of flexibility, second chances, and opportunities for lifelong learning.

Community Colleges

But if the entry point to those systems, the two-year schools and the smaller four-year schools are priced out of reach of middle-class families (and remember, these are often people paying for their own education, not relying on their parents), it is another serious setback for to our ability to move people into the middle class, and another factor that will increase the inequality of income and opportunity in the U.S.

The answer is in part a new student aid program, as most of the candidates have proposed, but, frankly, you shouldn't have to rely on aid to attend a public institution. I'd like to see a candidate start to talk about the institutions themselves, and particularly about that wonderful, singularly American institution, the community college. Where community colleges are really good -- which is probably about half of them -- they serve two purposes. In partnership with local business, they provide the specific training needed for the real jobs in that area, particularly high-skill manufacturing jobs. And they provide an entry point to the four-year colleges in the system, which allows the student to pay for only two years worth of credits at the more expensive level. Almost half of all students start their education at a community college.

And for some reason, politicians never seem to talk about community colleges. They are never mentioned in plans for college affordability. (One exception is Paul Wellstone, who used to say that when he left the Senate, he would go back to teaching, but instead of Carleton College, he would go to a community college.) Community colleges don't get much aid at all from the federal government, so it's pretty easy to promise a significant increase. And that increase could be structured to encourage those community colleges that aren't as effective at moving their students into real jobs, or helping their students who want to go on to a four-year degree, actually get to that point. (I'd propose calling it the Wellstone Bill.)

The point is not the specifics of the policy, but the message that you care about these institutions and the kind of students, often older, who attend them. It's a way to reach students and young and not-so-young people who are very different from the ones you see at most campaign rallies, the ones who can't afford to take off a semester to follow Phish around the country or work for Dean -- because they have to work or they have a baby. It's a huge body of untapped voters, and Democrats don't talk to them very much.

The "V" Word

Now, back to elementary and secondary education. There is one thing that a candidate like Clark can do or say that would have a huge impact.Frankly, it can be any Democrat except Dean or maybe Gephardt, that is, any Democrat who no longer stands any chance of winning the endorsement of the National Education Association. (Both the New Hampshire chapter and the vastly powerful California Education Association have already backed Dean.)

Here's the section of the speech:

I care passionately about America's public schools. Universal public education is one of the things that's made this country great. Ninety percent of students will attend public schools, so I believe anyone who disparages public schools or thinks private schools should take their place profoundly misunderstands our heritage and our economy...

But, the fact is that too many schools are failing. Sometimes that's a matter of money, but often, the schools are so flawed that one cannot imagine putting more money into them. I don't want to tell parents that they have to wait a generation for their schools to improve. And at the same time, if there are schools in the community that may be private schools, but are willing to serve the public good by accepting anyone and meeting the very same standards of accountability and performance that we demand under No Child Left Behind, as well as respecting the Constitutional guarantee separating church and state, then I think we should at least find out whether they can play a role in the public education system. For that reason, as president, I will encourage a broader experiment with school vouchers, along with the most rigorous evaluation possible before we take it one step further.

The ultimate test of vouchers is not whether children in private schools do better. The test is whether they improve the public schools, whether they improve the whole system. Does having another option give parents more power to demand improvements in the existing public schools? Does the fact that parents have an alternative encourage public schools to try a little harder? I don't know, but I know that it might. And I think it's our obligation to find out.

I think those paragraphs would be very hard for a reasonable person to argue with. It's also the right policy, and, I'm convinced, one that will seem as obvious and uncontroversial in five or six years as charter schools seem today. At the same time, these words would be perceived as a radical break with the Democratic Party interest group establishment. It would send a message to swing voters that this is not an ordinary, partisan Democrat, and yet also be a popular position with African-American voters. And yet, the odds that any Democrat will even dare to say this are very slim.

For more on how vouchers can benefit Democrats, see this article from the Washington Monthly a while back. The author is one of the first to recognize that a voucher system with standards would not so much mean privatizing public education as bringing private schools into the public system and holding them to public standards.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 11, 2003 | Permalink


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This is really DEAN's issue for the taking because he understands it extremely well and has laid out a plan for its reform. Its yet another issue where the media and the pundits have ignored Dean's SUBSTANCE.

I posted on Dean's plan here:

In my view the failings of NCLB are actually more serious in the incentives than in the lack of funding.

I am not convinced that even the accountability really works based on the evidence out of Chicago's program which seems to show the test score gains are concentrated in partiular types of test questions that reflect teaching to the test and the real evidence in Houston.

This is a link to the New York Times piece explaining that even the tests score gains in Houston were a mirage. By the way, this link shouldn't rot:


On Vouchers:

As an economist who has read the studies on this I don't understand why the sort of "serious" minded pundits keep thinking that even though its not PC,...vouchers work or hold great promise. Just because teachers unions are against it doesn't mean it works!

There is real empirical evidence from randomized trials that show it doesn't work. The right-wing think tank studies e.g. Manhattan Institute stuff never holds up to scrutiny and don't end up in quality academic journals. Here is a great article worth reading on how the right distorts the evidence on vouchers:


On higher ed:

I think all the candidates seem to be talking about this and in the policy details, community college is implicitly the true target...but maybe they need to spell this out

I hope to post on this issue in the next week or so at Economists for Dean explaining at least the economics studies on the effects of tuition subsidies on enrollment becuase there has been great research done on this.

Posted by: lerxst | Dec 11, 2003 10:47:34 AM

Decembrist's thoughts on higher ed, especially the community colleges, makes a lot of sense. However, I second Lerxst's misgivings on the voucher issue; at the very least, the word is still out results wise. Why not just say that, instead of slipping in the positive thoughts, however qualified?

I also didn't find the Washington Monthly article that convincing as a Democratic think-piece. However much it was trying to convince Democrats of the opportunity presented by even a qualified embrace, it struck me the same as if it came from other side of the aisle, or from Cato. The turning of terms--using vouchers to teach private schools the virtues of a public system rather than the other way around--seems not to confront the main issue, which is the lack of committment--philosophical, political, financial, to a public school system, especially in urban areas.

On more practical-political matters, why not go at the education question by recognizing the difficulties teachers face, especially in underfunded urban contexts. Their unions fight defensively in bad conditions and it seems important to recognize that, and push for policies that create conditions in the classroom that allow students to learn and teachers to teach. And to come at one of Decembrist's recent themes (which I think gives away too much ground to the center-right consensus), how could these not include something on the order of "more" resources? Perhaps some of Decembrist's ideas on tax reform might help with the restructuring?

With some justification, the Teachers' unions see vouchers as a union busting move; at the very least, if vouchers are to be workable, it needs to be shown that they are not, which, given their basic logic, might not be possible. Teachers and their union should be seen as an ally, not an "interest group" to be shed, as if they represented the same kind of power as Big Pharma or Lockheed Martin. Democrats need to help teachers' unions redefine their mission as defending a profession and a public calling rather than a sinecure. In the Wash Monthly piece--especially in the side bar--the union position was pure caricature. That kind of characterization, alone, suggests to me that vouchers--however democratic the language of choice sounds--remain a neo-con trap door.

Posted by: R Wells | Dec 11, 2003 10:59:46 PM

The teacher's union is is far scarier than 'Big Pharma' or Lockheed Martin. I'm not a Republican, but a huge reason I will never be a Democrat is the teachers' union, more specifically the Los Angeles UTLA. Tragically, they put their interests before those of their students and I am perplexed why they should have so much control over policy--being a good teacher does not mean you are a good manager.

The worst schools get the worst teachers because of the unions, leaving poor and minority students bereft. Initiative on the classroom level and on the principal level is quashed. Teachers object to meeting to discuss students during lunch. Failing teachers (yes, they exist--how could it be otherwise?) are impossible to fire, as are failing principals, all because of the unions. Parents cannot volunteer to do yard work around the school because of unions. How does this help children? Credentialing is a joke, all because of the union.

The union acts as if it is entitled, and that very attitude bespeaks an ugly callousness. The schools in LA have already lost two generations. Scores are improving very, very slightly, but conditions are awful.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for collective bargaining, but setting such important public policy as education at the mercy of collective bargaining is terribly misguided and has actively oppressed our minority communities.



Posted by: Marc | Dec 21, 2003 4:12:31 AM

The biggest problem the Democrats have on education policy is that parents believe in testing, and teachers' unions don't. Marc points out a common response that many parents who investigate what actually goes on in urban schools have. The union is the primary impediment to education.

The union claims that "teaching to the test" forces teachers to abandon more holistic and educationally superior methods in favor of cramming students full of facts which they may face on the tests. The reality is that testing forces teachers to abandon incoherent syllabi, lackadaisical classroom management, and paper-shuffling in the teachers' lounge in favor of actually teaching kids something.

Most parents/voters/taxpayers are judged at work by the results they acheive. Teachers' unions prevent teachers from being subject to the same level of scrutiny - a teacher can be fired for hugging a student for half a second longer than the sexual harassment manual allows, but if a teacher spends thirty years babysitting her pupils rather than teaching them, she'll continue to get annual raises every year.

Unless the Democrats are willing to tell the teachers unions to go pound sand on the testing and accountability issues, they're not going to be able to make any traction against Bush on this issue among potential swing voters.

Contrary to R Wells, many urban schools are not underfunded. Here in the Bay Area, San Francisco has $10,000 per pupil per year, yet still produces poorly educated students. Oakland, one of the worst districts in the state, has more than the state average of funding.

Posted by: Anthony | Dec 23, 2003 6:45:22 PM

Re Anthony and Marc: Sure, there are problems with Teachers' Unions. Rather than join in the chorus of standard criticism, I said that Democrats should work with unions to improve public schools, so that teachers could look at their jobs as something more than sinecures, to be protected by the union. Beyond that, one of things about attacks on teachers and their unions that always bothers me is that the issues are often taken out of context, leaving all the blame for public school problems, especially in urban areas, on unions. I write from NYC. Overcrowding; dilapidated schools; the local concentrations of extreme poverty: are these all the fault of the teachers' union?? And the unpleasant fact of the matter, contra Anthony is that teachers in tough schools in NYC (all those lazy "hers") are, functionally speaking, babysitters, given the intellectual preparedness and the overall emotional condition of many of the poor children they are charged with teaching. An interesting question might be: how shrill are the anti-union cries in affluent school districts??? Teachers don't work in a ideal world, where performance can be rated as if all classrooms were alike, and all filled with well fed, well-housed and willing to learn children. The union is not designed to fight problems outside the work lives of its members; all it can do is protect them. If anything, perhaps that is the real problem with urban Teachers' unions, albeit one that is historical, not so much the result of individual kinds of failures (greed, laziness, what have you). One of the things a Democrat could do with the Teachers' Union (if both were energized to do so) would mount a fight that ties the success of public education to living wage and housing struggles, and a fight against poverty and socio-economic inequality generally.

All things being equal--who needs unions?? But let's not fall into the trap of thinking, like the businessmen who intellectually and financially drive the voucher movement, that they are. So much for swing voters, I guess.

Posted by: R Wells | Jan 8, 2004 7:25:08 PM


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