One of the key differences between Democrats and Republicans was illustrated during August’s conventions. While there were about 300 members of the National Education Association registered as delegates at the Democratic convention, Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole used his convention acceptance speech as an occasion to attack teachers and teacher unions, And while Democrats talked about the importance of education, Republicans used their convention as an opportunity to talk about home schooling.
Education has always been more than reading, writing, and `rithmetic. From laws that require school attendance to skirmishes over the curriculum, politics are part of education. Certainly we see that in the current debates over affirmative action, with many key cases having come from the classroom. The Piscataway case, where a white teacher sued because her equally qualified Black colleague was retained while she was let go speaks volumes about some of the assumptions that some teachers have about their colleagues and about the role race plays in the educational process.
Between President Clinton’s shilly shallying about affirmative action and candidate Dole’s abuse of the issue (not to mention vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp’s absolute reversal on the matter), affirmative action may well be the “Willie Horton” issue of the 1996 campaign. Meanwhile, the politicization. of the home school movement is one way that Republicans can demonstrate their antipathy for “big government.” But while home schooling works for some people, there are political underpinnings to this movement. Those parents who say that they want to control what their children are taught, and the environment in which they are taught, often behave like ostriches putting their heads in sand. Some remind me of the parents who, rather than allow their children to attend integrated schools, chose to start private academies in the South.
To be sure, there are many schools that leave much to be desired, and education does not have a high enough priority for many politicians. I am writing from Washington, D.C., where the Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools have so badly mismanaged the educational process that several schools had to be closed temporarily because they had not been repaired by the time the fall semester began. The city’s only public university, the University of the District of Columbia, has had its semester opening delayed because of a lack of funds. The financial situation in the District of Columbia is, on one hand, unique, but on the other hand quite similar to the fiscal situation in other cities. Even as educational innovations are implemented for students who fit into special categories, students who are “average” are too often ignored. The basis of our nation’s economic bifurcation often begins at the K-3 level.
Policy analysts have been quick to churn out the reports about education. From A Nation at Risk to The Forgotten Half, researchers have been pushing a range of educational reforms. But often these researchers forget to look at the politics of education, and the fact that some are served by the ignorance of others. Furthermore, the changing composition of school boards, now seen as prized elected officials for members of the so-called Religious Right, has implications for everything from curriculum development to remedial education. Many of the “irreligious” Religious Right have no less than the total destruction of public education as their goal. Between home schooling and voucher programs, their desire seems to be to turn education into a completely private matter. Those who cannot afford to design educational programs for their children will find themselves sideline in the future.
There’s something else here, too. There is the extent to which public education is used as a way to communicate shared values. Those who want to take the government out of education probably also want to teach some distorted view of history (neither slavery nor the Holocaust happened, according to them) that is consistent with their ideological bent. They often see no need to discuss race relations, gay rights, or women’s issues, and sometimes minimize the concept of tolerance, a concept that is increasingly important in our multicultural country. Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush when I lump all of these “reformers” together. But I am disturbed by the stealth attack on government that often goes under the guise of educational reform.
The political conventions were about much more than education. They were about competing views of the future of our society. Neither party offered the vision that is necessary to move us to the 21st century, but those Republicans who used their prime time remarks as an occasion to attack teachers have a vision that goes back to the 19th century! Beneath issues of educational reform, there are political agendas that deal with the role of government and the place for tolerance in our society.
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