Thursday, March 09, 2006

Needed: Innovative, Not Destructive, Education Policy

The Democrats' 2008 presidential candidate, regardless of whom it is, must have a solid education plank on his or her platform. Democrats and Republicans both must realize that it's not enough to pay lipservice to "improving education" -- candidates in every election cycle ever have been in favor of that vague idea. What we need now is innovative ideas that candidates are actually willing to fight for.

This is partially a response to Mr. Polkuote's blistering attack on vouchers from the other night (with which I, by the way, 100 percent agree). Democrats can't just attack testing and vouchers without any concrete reform alternatives. I'm not saying I have any better ideas at this point, but Democrats who have full staffs working on this (not to mention countless thinktanks and researchers looking at what works) must come up with something better and make it a main campaign issue -- that's the kind of urgency the system needs. We need policies that will keep the best, most experienced teachers in urban schools. We need policies that will help public school systems recruit the country's best minds to run their districts and schools. And we need policies that set high expectations for student achievement and give them the support they need to get there (regardless of where they live, what color their skin is or what income their parents earn).

Let's also not get lost in the politics, as I said in my post the other night. The ideas behind testing and vouchers are not all bad. Testing certainly shouldn't be stressed as much as it is today (and it shouldn't take away nearly as much instructional time as it does), but it can help give us a bare-bones barometer of how well schools and school districts are educating their students (and help make personnel and resource decisions based on the results). Vouchers are not going to fix education -- they'll much more quickly destroy it -- but, with proper first-amendment protections and safeguards against corruption, they can be a help to a few families that badly need it in the short-run.

The bottom line on this whole issue is that Democrats and other voucher opponents will have a lot more credibility when they propose positive alternatives that help inner-city students in the short-run and show our society's commitment to fixing our cities' broken schools in the long-run.

Over the past 20 years, we've heard general, blanket defenses of public education's virtues. But we've heard a strange silence on how to make those virtues obvious to parents of students who go to school in places where all of their teachers have one or two years of experience and violence is the norm. Let's hear something concrete and comprehensive, and we may just bury vouchers forever.


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