Monday, July 21, 2008

John McCain and Education

At the NAACP convention John McCain decided to roll out his “ideas” on education. If anything points to the intellectual bankruptcy of the Republican Party it was this speech. Just like every Republican since Nixon McCain suggested that vouchers are the solution for the education crisis.

Republicans endless faith in the free market and in privatization is heartwarming. Even after the manifest failures of Air line deregulation, Bank Deregulation, and Iraq Contractor debacle the Elephants still believe that private solutions are the best public policy. Just put some cash in the parents hands and they will pick the right schools.

Leaving the philosophical debate alone, let us look at the proposal itself. Every voucher plan put forth by the Republican has been woefully underfunded. There is no private school out there that can be had for three to four thousand dollars. Most public schools spend twice that amount per pupil. The question of how cash-strapped parents are going to make up the difference is blissfully ignored. Parents who try to survive on minimum wage jobs would have to spend ¾ of their pitiful salaries on education to get decent schooling for their children.

Vouchers for low-wage earners and the poor are essentially an abandonment of those who are most in need. The under-funded and failing schools of the inner-cities and the rural areas would be further decimated. The Republican plan is really about cutting funding to Education and further impoverishing the rural and urban poor. Do you really think the Elephants are going to raise taxes to really support the $15,000 to $30,000 per student hit a real voucher program would cost?

Going a bit deeper, let us say the Free Market fanatics are serious and are willing to fund the vouchers program. Let us say this is not just no child left behind on steroids; yet another underfunded boondoggle that ends up making the situation worse. Even under these circumstances; that of full funding, vouchers fails. Schools are failing because neighborhoods are failing. They fail because communities are resource poor. They fail because of economic realities on the ground.

Americans have a great faith in education, perhaps too great. Education is not a cure all; even the best funded schools run by the most dedicated educators can not solve the underlying economic and social realities of blighted communities. Great schools can not provide jobs. Great schools can do nothing about chaos of inner-city life, about the poverty, about the desperation, about the despair. Great schools can do little about the desperate realities of rural poverty. All schools can do is perhaps be a ticket out such situations. Even then that only works for a lucky few who escape; it is no solution for the majority that remains. Our educational crisis is a symptom of a much larger malfunction. It is a reflection of our abandonment of those who are in the greatest need. It is an abandonment of our once cherished belief that hard working people deserve a decent reward for the sweat that comes from their brows.

There is a radical solution to the education crisis. We can make our school system the envy of the world again but it requires killing off several sacred cows. The first cow that needs to go to the slaughter house is local funding and control of our schools. Local control is a 19th Century notion that has no place in the 21st Century. Far too many localities are just too resource poor to do a decent job of educating the children they are responsible for. Resource rich areas need to support resource poor areas and the only way that really evens out is on a federal level.

Since it is the Feds who will have to foot the bill for any real reform of the school system the Feds have every right to set the standards. Local control will have to be sacrificed and schooling will become much more uniform. Pointy headed bureaucrats in Washington are paying the piper, pointy headed bureaucrats will call the tune.

The second sacred cow to the slaughterhouse will have to be tenyor. Teachers have to be accountable and there has to be a way of dismissing underperforming or burnt out teachers. To be really serious about this the process has got to be de-politicized; again we are talking standards. Teachers have unions because school systems and parents have used and abused them. Teachers used to be hideously underplayed and were placed in horrendous work conditions. Unprotected teachers will again become used and abused by the school systems they work for. We expect so much from teacher yet we pay them so little. With this in mind we have to find a serious way to review teacher performance. We need real oversight. Hint, this does not mean testing; not for the teachers nor for the students. Standardized test only test someone’s ability to take a standardized test. No child left behind has been an absolute disaster because of its fetish for testing. Teachers have been forced to teach to the test. Student bored with the mind-numbing rote learning have been tuning out and dropping out at prodigious rates. No Child has harmed at risk children; the very cohort it was supposed to be helping.

Thus we reach our third sacred cow for the slaughterhouse, the very notion of education itself. We are still locked into a notion of schools as some sort of knowledge factory, of schools turning out a standardized product known as graduates. The thing is children are not widgets’ to be spit out a receiving dock. What is it that we are really trying to achieve with education? What we should be trying to achieve is rational ,informed, citizens. That means they need to know how science works, how economic works, how government works, how math works and how to read and write. Most importantly students must be taught rational thought and logic. Unfortunately this runs counter of parents wishes that children be taught what they believe however irrational that may be. Schools are failing because ideologues of all stripes have forced them to teach garbage. Our schools are failing because or politics are failing. We would rather use our schools as yet another political football than get serious about what we truly desire from our educators. We are ignorant in science because we allow “intelligent” design to be taught. We are ignorant in history because we allow Afrocentrism to be taught. We are ignorant of politics because civics is ignored while we cram our kids full of useless information about state capitals.

None of this is going to be solved by school vouchers. Public schools are part of the commons, of we the people. We as a nation must decide what are core values are, we must decide if we truly value education or not. If we really do value education then we can find the compromises needed to turn our failing schools around. Like most Republicans John McCain values market forces over everything. He does not believe in the public space, in we the people. That is why he wants to privatize the schools. He only cares about the fat cats and big winners in society; not about ordinary people. He is more than happy to see ordinary peoples children end up uneducated surfs in McJobs, the question is are you?

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