Is Politics the Problem in Education or the Solution?

Apr 13, 2017 12:00:00 AM


Politics is at the heart of so much that is wrong with public education. On the left, education politics is often about increasing funding while evading responsibility for results. On the right, it’s mostly about local control and unregulated school choice. Both sides pay lip service to equity, quality and student outcomes, but it’s more of an afterthought. But if people actually voted on the issue, politics could drive change in education. What if education had the same power as the gun lobby to coerce lawmakers? What if governors and state legislators paid a political price for inadequate or inequitable funding? What if school board elections turned on classroom results rather than petty power struggles? Today, most school board elections get single-digit turnouts, even in multi-million dollar races, making them especially vulnerable to the wrong interests: tax hawks opposed to spending, unionists seeking influence on both sides of the bargaining table, extremists who want to pervert curriculum, racists bent on perpetuating segregation, or reform zealots who seek to disrupt the status quo regardless of results or consequences. Homeowners, whose property values are directly tied to the quality of public education in their communities, don’t seem to care enough to vote. Parents, whose hopes and dreams for their children are tied to education, don’t come out and vote. I once received an invitation to a fundraiser from a politician who is a champion of education reform, yet [pullquote position="right"]education wasn’t even listed among the top six issues[/pullquote] on the invite. His pollsters and fundraisers knew that education does not move voters or donors. We just endured a dispiriting national election that featured almost no discussion of education beyond one candidate’s promise to expand school choice and another candidate’s promise to make college free. Education policy writer Andy Rotherham points out that education reform has failed to engage suburban and rural voters, for whom school choice is not an option and accountability is a secondary concern. For the most part, reform touches lower-income urban communities that tend to vote in lower numbers. Another factor may be what I call the “accountability conundrum.” Parents and voters in many polls say they support accountability as established under federal law, with standardized tests and interventions in low-performing schools. Parents also go to great lengths to get their children into good schools, paying exorbitantly to live in pricey communities with good schools or to enroll their kids in expensive private schools. Urban parents jockey furiously to get their kids into gifted, magnet or charter schools, often miles away from their home. Nearly 2 million kids today are home-schooled by parents who nevertheless still pay taxes for schools they don’t use. And yet, parents don’t really think schools or teachers have a big hand in determining if a child is learning. In a 2015 national poll of more than 1,000 parents nationwide, Education Post asked, “Who is most responsible if a student is making progress in school.” Forty-three percent said “parents/families” and 35 percent said “the students themselves.” Just 13 percent said “teachers” and just 5 percent listed “the school.” All told, barely 1 in 5 parents hold teachers, schools, districts or states “most responsible” for a child’s learning. And, when given a long list of “concerns,” the number one concern among all groups—Black, White and Hispanic—was, “Parents are not as involved in their child’s education as they should be.” So, parents say they value accountability and will do anything to get a good education for their kids, but they don’t hold anyone responsible for outcomes by exercising the most effective form of accountability in their control—strategically voting on the issue. The failure to hold elected officials responsible for school quality trickles down to the entire system. Voters don’t make politicians pay, and politicians do not make school systems pay. Few schools or educators face consequences for low performance. Meanwhile, about 1 in 5 students never graduates from high school; 2 out of 3 who do graduate are not ready for college; among those who go to college, 1 in 4 needs to retake high school classes at their own expense; and 40 percent of college students do not finish within six years, costing parents, students and taxpayers billions. Education is arguably the most important investment society makes. It’s the surest path to the American Dream for people of every race and background. Every problem we face, from joblessness and crime to racism and even obesity, can be better addressed through education. Successful graduates contribute to society. Unsuccessful students carry costs. So, is politics the problem or the solution? Let’s vote on it.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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