Although most of my articles on education criticize politicians, readers shouldn’t equate what I write to a particular political bent. Both major political parties have supported educational mandates that do nothing to help children, particularly those in need, so in that regard, one is no better than the other. The politics of both parties are often dictated more by personal beliefs and biases than on what the facts tell us is true, and that is not a good thing.
When I watch political shows such as “Meet the Press,” I am dumbfounded by how members of the competing parties will debate a topic from completely opposite viewpoints while citing “the facts” that support their position. I often come away from those discussions more confused than I was before the discussion began. How can “the facts” support two diametrically opposed positions? It is almost as if there are no certainties left in our world; only political positions.
The problem with that assertion, of course, is that it is false. There are still things we know to be true based on years of research, so when I criticize the politicization of education, I do so from a research and knowledge-based position and not because of my own personal or political beliefs, which are no more or less important than yours. But, the facts; now THEY matter.
That is why, when politicians create an education law that addresses childhood literacy, and that law ignores the importance of birth to age 5 in language development, I reject it. I reject it, not because I think children should be illiterate, but because research tells us that the years from birth to five are integral in language development. That is not a political position; it is a fact.
When politicians create a teacher evaluation system that holds teachers solely responsible for a child’s test scores, I reject it, not because of a fear of accountability, as many politicians would like you to believe, but because research tells us that a child’s environment outside of school plays a greater role in his or her success than a teacher does. That’s not a political position; it is a fact.
When politicians create school report cards that rely primarily on student test scores that they claim will show you “how your school is performing,” I reject it. I reject it not because a child’s school doesn’t matter, but because research tells us that a multitude of factors IN ADDITION to the school he or she attends impacts student achievement. That is not a political position; it is a fact.
We ARE still allowed to reject concepts that aren’t true, aren’t we?
Another political platform that is based on personal biases and not fact has been the attempt to privatize public education. Politicians, primarily Republicans, have stealthily promoted their privatization agenda by allowing privately owned charter schools access to public funds under the guise that they are public schools, and by expanding a voucher program, which gives families access to tax dollars to use to pay tuition to private schools. They have created these programs under their oft-repeated “school choice” mantra, which they claim will give EVERY parent and child an opportunity to select a better school of their choice. Of course, the facts tell us that neither charter schools nor vouchers guarantee anything of the sort, but as we have learned, in the political world the facts don’t matter.
To be clear, I am a believer in school choice. I believe that parents have the right to educate their child wherever and however they want. But, putting personal beliefs aside, the data show us that, as a rule, charter schools provide no better quality of an education to children than public schools do, and both they and voucher programs do not provide equal opportunity for all, because they do not provide equal access to all.
For any voucher program to be successful there must be two willing participants. If you hand me a voucher to play in the National Basketball Association, it gives me no more access to the NBA than I had without the voucher, because no NBA team will (rightfully) take me. So, in that case, an NBA voucher system would be nothing but an illusion of equal access.
The same can be said about school vouchers. If you hand disenfranchised children vouchers to attend private schools, the vouchers are worthless unless private schools will accept those children. Private schools by their very nature do not accept all children. That’s what makes them private.
This is by no means an indictment of private schools. In fact, I attended a private university myself, and it did not admit students who did not meet the standards it had deemed important. Had someone handed the excluded students a voucher, it wouldn’t have guaranteed them equal opportunity if the university didn’t accept it, and that’s my point. It’s an illusion.
Now, I realize that, politically speaking, it sounds very honorable to claim that charter schools and vouchers give ALL children an equal opportunity to attend a school that is better than the public school in which they are “stuck,” but they don’t. That’s not a political position; it is a fact. I’ve watched it happen.
So, if our politicians insist on pushing these kinds of personal agendas, is it too much to ask that they sell them on their merit instead of on an illusion?
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.