Why aren’t Dems talk­ing about school re­form?

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Kal­man R. Het­tle­man, a mem­ber of the Kir­wan Com­mis­sion, is the au­thor of “Mis­la­beled as Dis­abled: The Ed­u­ca­tional Abuse of Strug­gling Learn­ers and How WE Can Fight It” (Ra­dius Book Group).

The dog that didn’t bark in the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary de­bates was the na­tional cri­sis in our pub­lic schools. The can­di­dates did lots of yelp­ing (much of it thought­ful) on a va­ri­ety of other loom­ing calamities: eco­nomic in­equal­ity, so­cial jus­tice, cli­mate change and for­eign re­la­tions to name a few.

But does any­one think our na­tion can con­front any of these chal­lenges over the long haul with­out an elec­torate that is lit­er­ate? Ours is not. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­li­able and shock­ing na­tional data, only one-third of fourth and eighth grade stu­dents in pub­lic schools are read­ing at pro­fi­cient lev­els.

So why did the can­di­dates, pro­gres­sives and mod­er­ates alike, avoid any se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of K-12 school re­form? True, the mod­er­a­tors didn’t ask them specif­i­cally about it. But im­pas­sioned words were spo­ken about school bus­ing and shoot­ings, and the can­di­dates were hardly shy about say­ing pretty much any­thing they wanted.

Nor does the ex­pla­na­tion lie in na­tional in­dif­fer­ence. Polls put the ap­palling con­di­tion of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion high on the list of voter con­cerns. We’re even will­ing to pay more taxes for bet­ter schools.

Rather, I think the can­di­dates’ re­luc­tance to wade in on school re­form is be­cause they — and we the peo­ple — are nowhere near agree­ment on what na­tional school re­form should look like. Worse, we are po­lit­i­cally pho­bic about even the men­tion of na­tional K-12 poli­cies. We re­main fix­ated on “lo­cal con­trol” of pub­lic school­ing de­spite all ev­i­dence and rea­son to the con­trary.

For ex­am­ple, how does it make sense for 50 states, much less 14,000 or so lo­cal school dis­tricts, to go their own way in de­cid­ing what should be learned in read­ing, math and sci­ence, and how to mea­sure whether stu­dents are learn­ing? Yet, the No Child Left Be­hind Act was de­mo­nized and con­sid­er­ably gut­ted be­cause it sought to put the coun­try on a path to com­mon stan­dards and tests.

NCLB was im­per­fect but at least a start. To­day, we can’t even blame U.S. Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Betsy DeVos, as in­ept as she is, for our na­tion’s bi­par­ti­san dumb­ing down of stan­dards and tests at the state and lo­cal lev­els.

The pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are also afraid to con­front the lack of ad­e­quate school fund­ing na­tion­wide. Most pub­lic school stu­dents — dis­pro­por­tion­ately but not ex­clu­sively poor and mi­nor­ity — suf­fer be­cause their lo­cal schools can’t af­ford ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties like higher teacher pay and ad­di­tional in­struc­tion for strug­gling read­ers. If you don’t think that’s a na­tional is­sue, look at what has hap­pened to the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Mary­land Com­mis­sion on In­no­va­tion and Ex­cel­lence in Ed­u­ca­tion (the Kir­wan Com­mis­sion).

There’s rel­a­tively lit­tle dis­pute that the com­mis­sion laid out a bold and promis­ing blue­print for re­form. But it’s ex­pen­sive, and the gov­er­nor and Gen­eral As­sem­bly are loath to raise taxes. At the past ses­sion in An­napo­lis, they funded only a mea­ger frac­tion of the rec­om­men­da­tions.

If that’s the fate of ad­e­quate fund­ing in a wealthy blue state like Mary­land, con­sider the dire con­se­quences in al­most all of the other states where school spend­ing is well be­low ours. In fact, un­der­fund­ing and in­equal­ity of ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity is a na­tional dis­as­ter and dis­grace.

If the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates had the courage to con­front the ir­ra­tional­ity and in­ef­fec­tive­ness of lo­cal con­trol, what might they have said at the de­bates? Some cam­paign po­si­tion pa­pers call for in­creased fed­eral aid. But no can­di­date has staked out a strong plat­form for the in­dis­pens­able na­tional role in K-12 re­form.

They should be propos­ing a “new ed­u­ca­tion fed­er­al­ism” with three pil­lars. One: na­tional stan­dards and tests. Two: fed­eral fund­ing and re­quire­ments that would guar­an­tee ad­e­quate school spend­ing na­tion­wide. And three: ro­bust na­tional re­search and devel­op­ment that would hold all states and lo­cal dis­tricts ac­count­able for spend­ing the funds cost ef­fec­tively.

This is no po­lit­i­cal fan­tasy. Lo­cal con­trol would sur­vive and thrive. The feds would only set what is to be learned and guar­an­tee ad­e­quate fund­ing. State and lo­cal dis­tricts could still pre­scribe how the stan­dards would be met and the funds spent, in­clud­ing which teach­ers to hire and which ev­i­dence-based teach­ing prac­tices to uti­lize.

That’s how it’s done in other coun­tries whose stu­dents far out­per­form ours. Let’s face it: in K-12 pol­icy, the U.S. is a po­lit­i­cally un­der­de­vel­oped na­tion. We must do bet­ter and a coura­geous ed­u­ca­tor-in-chief could make it hap­pen.

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