Education and the U.S. Elections

Education has not featured much in the U.S. Presidential debates, nor on the campaign trail.  Yet there are very significant differences between the candidates, and education is perhaps the most important issue facing any society's future.  And, at present, education in the U.S. is in dire straits.  There are huge inequalities.  Almost half of disadvantaged children drop out before completing high school, and there is a large achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.  Moreover, international comparisons of test scores put the U.S. toward the bottom of industrialized nations.

Now, the federal government has a limited role to play in education.  Elementary and secondary education are mainly the responsibility of state and local governments.  Over the years, the federal role has gotten stronger, but the federal government still only contributes 10% of elementary and secondary school costs.  And less so for post-secondary education.  Nonetheless, the federal government is influential in both areas, many would say even more than their monetary contribution.

For higher education, the contrast between Obama and Romney is quite clear.  Obama plans to continue the policies he began during his present administration:  expand student loans, student grants to disadvantaged students, and tuition tax credits for families that send their children to college.  Romney, on the other hand, wants to turn the loan programs over to the banks and eliminate the grant programs.  It is unclear what he will do with the tax credits.  Romney has been quoted as saying that students who want to go to college "should borrow money from their parents."

For K-12, the situation is more complex.  Let's start with Obama, since we have a track record of what he may do in a second term.  Obama inherited George W. Bush's program, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).   NCLB was a failure.  Children continued to be left far behind.  One researcher described NCLB as "testing without investing."  We tested our children extensively but were unwilling to put any money into improving the schools that were doing poorly.  Teachers wound up teaching to the narrow tests, and administrators reduced the curriculum by de-emphasizing the many subjects not tested,  such as social studies, history, art, music, and physical education.

To Obama's credit, while not eliminating NCLB (which he could not do without Congress), he de-emphasized it and made it more flexible.  Instead, he began a new program called Race to the Top (RTTT) which opened up a competition among the states for federal money if they would agree to certain reforms.  Two of those reforms are the expansion of charter schools (quasi-public but deregulated) and the use of performance pay in which teachers are evaluated by their students' test scores.  Somewhat surprisingly, Romney seems to agree with both of these ideas.

Unfortunately, agreement does not mean these are good ideas.  Research on charter schools generally shows that, on average, they are no better than regular public schools.  There is no reason to believe that their expansion will do anything about educational inequities and deficiencies.  Pay for performance, as I have discussed in a previous blog, is an awful idea.  While it sounds sensible superficially, in practice it is a disaster.  The problem is that there are literally dozens of factors that affect student test score besides the teacher, and it is impossible to separate out the influence of teachers from all those other factors.  The result is a nightmare: pay for performance schemes often give rewards to ineffective teachers and punish effective teachers.

However, Romney and Obama do disagree on some important K-12 issues.  Romney takes a more confrontational and critical view of teacher unions, arguing that they are to blame for some of the failures of U.S. education.  Obama is generally more supportive of teacher unions, as they are of him.  But unions were not particularly pleased with RTTT provisions, and it was Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago and former Obama chief of staff, who precipitated the recent teachers' strike in that city.

Romney, in the interests of reducing the federal deficit has argued that we should have fewer teachers and can get by with larger class sizes.  To the contrary, Obama has supported expanding the number of teachers and consequently reducing class sizes.

In terms of early childhood education, Obama has supported the expansion of the Head Start program.  Romney, on the other hand, argues we need to reduce the deficit and would shut down Head Start, leaving such programs to the states to fund.

Perhaps the most important difference between the candidates is that Romney wants a nationwide school voucher program that allows parents to send their children to private schools with public monies.  Obama is opposed.

A voucher program signals the end of public schooling as we know it, for at least three reasons.  First, it threatens the long-standing idea of public schools as a melting pot, as a common experience shared by all.  Second, a voucher program will necessarily further stratify our schools and society into haves and have-nots.  Third, it takes attention from the need to reform our public schools and leaves them as a repository for the most disadvantaged students.

It is interesting to note, as have a number of analysts, that these problematic current and proposed education policies have been marketed to state and federal governments by a handful of private foundations -- most especially, Gates, Walton, and Broad.   It could be argued that these billionaire boys clubs, as they have been called, are using their own values, not evidence, to determine government policies.

In my view, neither the education policies of Obama nor Romney offer a solution to our educational problems.  Romney's policies will only exacerbate them as he cuts efforts to make early childhood and higher education more equitable and makes our K-12 education system much more unfair.  But Obama doesn't offer any answers, especially in K-12.  We are faced with what Jonathan Kozol called "savage inequalities" in our education system and in our society.  It is no surprise that there are large gaps in education between the advantaged and disadvantaged.

What to do?  Below are some directions to consider.

First, these savage inequalities begin way before schooling starts.  We must have every child ready for school.  Bill Clinton proposed a program like this during his presidency but it didn't get very far.  What we need are greatly expanded high-quality early childhood education, adult literacy, child health, prenatal care, and other similar programs.

Second, the policies above need to be followed with extra attention and resources in K-12 schools to those who are disadvantaged.   This idea of compensatory education has been around for a while but rarely implemented.

Third, teachers are our most important educational resource.  We need to treat teachers like professionals, not like assembly line workers.  They should have more control and autonomy, similar to that accorded other professionals like doctors and lawyers. 

Finally, educational improvement does not just depend on education.  If we are not serious about societal problems like poverty, inequality, jobs, health care, hunger, and malnutrition, education will remain inequitable and deficient.

Unfortunately, at the moment, none of these policies are on either candidate's agenda.


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Steve Klees

Steven J. Klees ([email protected]) is the R. W. Benjamin Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland. He did his Ph.D. at Stanford University and has taught at Cornell University, Stanford University, Florida State University, and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil.
Prof. Klees' work examines the political economy of education and development with specific research interests in globalization, neoliberalism, and education; the role of aid agencies; education, human rights, and social justice; the education of disadvantaged populations; the role of class, gender, and race in reproducing and challenging educational and social inequality; and alternative approaches to education and development.

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