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Why Education Isn't a 2016 Campaign Issue

This year's election is so polarized, however, that candidates don't need to wrap themselves in school issues in order to seem kinder and gentler, or tougher and meaner than they really are.
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The conservative education reformer, Rick Hess, tells the uncomfortable truth that teachers and school patrons must recognize. Politicians often embrace education, but they typically do so in "symbolically potent ways," as opposed to making it a real-world priority. When noting that education is not as important of an issue in this election year, Hess explains:

Education has generally been how conservatives show themselves to be compassionate and how liberals show they're practical and responsible. This election, candidates face intense pressure on the left and the right to demonstrate that they're ideologically reliable -- and education is less helpful on that count.

Hess recalls that the last three presidents "made their thinking on education an integral part of their persona." He reminds us that:

For George W. Bush, it was a way to demonstrate a real commitment to equal opportunity. For Clinton and Obama, it was a way to talk about new public spending in terms of investment and personal responsibility, and to distinguish it from old-style tax-and-spend liberalism.

This year's election is so polarized, however, that candidates don't need to wrap themselves in school issues in order to seem kinder and gentler, or tougher and meaner than they really are.

Liberal education reform is rooted in a "Sister Souljah tactic" where "New Democrats" can show they aren't wimps by beating up their longtime allies, teachers and unions. In the big picture, it has never been so much about helping poor children of color as it has been about repeatedly using the word, "Accountability!," "Accountability!," "Accountability!" Only the most idealistic or naïve reformers could have thought that their bubble-in silver bullet could have improved high-poverty schools. The idea that the test, sort, reward, and punish approach to education could have been the "civil rights revolution of the 21st century" was a rationale for attacking teachers and unions.

Teachers weren't surprised when Bill Clinton beat up on us a little. Periodically, many or most Democratic constituencies have to "take one for the team." I doubt Clinton would have let his criticisms of educators and unions get out of control. School reform didn't become seriously damaging until No Child Left Behind. Then, President Obama put the worst of NCLB malpractice on steroids. He seemed to be trying to break the world's record in the use of the word "Accountability!," while ramming through the entire corporate reform agenda. The Obama administration stood silently, or even cheered, when Scott Walker, Rahm Emanuel, Chris Christie, Michelle Rhee, and their funders sought to destroy public education as we know it, and turn the teaching profession into a "gig" for untrained novices.

And that brings us back to the issue that Hess raises but doesn't fully explore. President Obama has a huge to-do list. I doubt he has much awareness of the harm his policies have done to schools. Obama may not fully realize how the demonization of teachers was at the core of his education agenda, and how much he opened the door for union-busting. He is probably more cognizant of the political problems that school reform has created for his successors, and how his reputation will suffer if the edu-politics of destruction divides the Democratic Party and starves its ability to advocate for the poor and for workers. In all likelihood, Obama merely turned federal education policy over to Bill Gates et. al; whatever happened to schools was just the price to be paid for getting the Billionaires Boys Club -- and its money -- on his side.

So, we need to push Hess's observation two steps further. Educators have already made it clear during this election cycle that we will not accept another Arne Duncan-style administration. Even if a Democrat tried to stay the course of the last seven years, the grassroots reaction by educators and patrons would be uncontrollable.

More fundamentally, for Democrats who are hooked on the mantra of "Accountability!", promoting charters, high-stakes testing, and value-added teacher evaluations in order to seem macho might be one part of the game that needs to be played. To politicos, imposing silly teacher evaluation regimes and the ending of seniority might have been no more than clubs for hitting educators upside the head in order to advance their tough-guy personas.

For corporate reformers, however, their market-driven, punitive approach is a part of their core beliefs. Corporations consciously sought to mandate their concept of "stacking" or firing employees based on metrics that might be dubious. I doubt many of them cared that the metrics that would be used to evaluate teachers were ridiculous. Neither did they know enough about schools to understand the negative effects that would inevitably result from value-added evaluations. Moreover, they loved the idea of replacing veteran educators, with their memories of institutional history, as well as their higher salaries and benefits.

For that reason, educators should read Hess's commentary as the first part of a reality check. Real world, education usually hasn't been that much of a political priority, so there wasn't much of a need for a serious consideration of how policies would work in actual schools. Our imperfect democratic, electoral politics are now being replaced by corporate governance. As the One Percent grows more dominant, we can expect them to try to impose their rules, procedures, and ethos on more and more of society. They won't stop at trying to impose their incentives and disincentives on teachers.

Neither does Hess discuss the reasons why politics are so polarized. Today's anger, I believe, is due to two generations of stagnant and falling wages. The polarization is spurred by both the growing inequities, and feelings of powerlessness. Poverty and other social problems used to be worse, but we still had faith that our constitutional democracy would work for us. Today's declining economic opportunity promotes scapegoating, with too many Republican candidates attacking immigrants and too many neoliberal Democrats lambasting teachers and unions. Voters may not have had enough opportunity to influence backroom political deal-making -- but we don't have any legal representation in corporate board rooms.

Let's just hope that today's all-to-common xenophobia and the teacher-bashing of recent years are not symptoms of a horrible structural decline. Let's hope that disempowered working people don't respond in a "Battle Royal," blindly striking out at any fellow citizens who might be rivals for a shrinking share of America's growing economic pie. Maybe we teachers and union members, who were early targets of corporate elites, can both teach and learn with our fellow workers, and we can all reclaim the power of the ballot box.

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