Informed Discretion: The Case for Education in 2016

The following piece is in a continued series of opinion features Our Political Essay is running. Each piece goes through extensive editing and must be properly cited, as per OPE’s rules on op-ed pieces.

In a letter dated September 28, 1820, Thomas Jefferson said the following: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

In a speech following his victory in the Nevada primary election on Feb. 23, Donald Trump said the following: “We won the evangelicals. We won with young, we won with old, we won with highly educated, we won with poorly educated – I love the poorly educated.”

My first glance at these two quotes brought up two questions: “how did we get here?” and “where do we go from here?” Clearly, our thoughts regarding education have shifted in the 196 years since Jefferson penned his prescription. The former question is best saved for a rainy day – the latter, on the other hand, is especially relevant in the context of the 2016 presidential election.

There’s just one problem: education isn’t relevant in the 2016 presidential election. Only Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio specifically outline plans to address the current state of K-12 educational affairs (and “specifically” is generously used in regards to Clinton’s website). The other three leading candidates – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders – make no mention of public education on their websites.

Non-platform statements are widely varied. While Cruz moves to disband the Department of Education, Trump laments that “we [the United States] are rated 28th in the world and frankly we spend far more per pupil than any other developed country in the world.”

Bernie Sanders’ unofficial website (one run by supporters of the candidate rather than the candidate himself) claims that “No Child Left Behind needs to be seriously reformed,” while Hillary Clinton focuses on “making high-quality education a priority for every child in America” and “improving student outcomes. (Which echoes the rhetoric behind the No Child Left Behind Act.)

The Huffington Post, in an article published on Feb. 4, remarked that “GOP candidates have discussed education just 11 times in 14 debates, compared to more than three dozen mentions by Democrats in only four debates.” Compare this to the first Republican debate, in which “tax/taxes” was mentioned 28 times. To make a long story short, education policy doesn’t seem to have much traction because there is no traction – education just isn’t a big topic for 2016.

But that doesn’t mean that education isn’t a big problem for 2016.

Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.

Here are the three top issues facing policymakers and politicians (including the next president) that you won’t hear about on the televised debates:

1)  Declining Educational Performance: In 2012, the United States performed below average on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment – a measurement of academic achievement among OECD – Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development – nations) mathematics test. Reading and science assessments fell among the average of OECD scores.

To put this in perspective – the highest achieving nations on the PISA test give their students the equivalent of an additional two years of schooling compared to American children. Imagine graduating high school as a college sophomore and the disparity will quickly become apparent. Our own internal educational achievement measurements also indicate falling performance. According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP scores, for 2011, two out of three eighth-graders can’t read proficiently, and only 25% are proficient in civics. Three-in-four students do not have a working knowledge of the system of government they will be responsible for at age 18. (And maybe this is why Donald Trump “loves the poorly educated.”)

2)  Diversity: A recent report from the Pew Research Center has found that, while America’s school-age population is more diverse than ever before, schools individually are becoming increasingly segregated. “On average,” the National Center for Education Statistics reports, “white students attended schools that were 9 percent black while black students attended schools that were 48 percent black.”

Diversity affects conversations about achievement as well. In the 2012-2013 school year, average SAT reading scores for white students exceeded those of black students by 126 points, math scores by 105 points, and writing scores by 97 points. The picture gets even more complex with the addition of Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and the multitude of other individualized and particularized student needs to the tableau of public education.

3)  Governance Changes: ‘The Prize,’ a 2015 book by Dale Russakoff, paints an excellent picture of the complexities of education governance. The work chronicles the efforts of Newark mayor Cory Booker, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to “turn around the Newark Public School District.” A massive governmental endeavor, the book highlights tensions in allocating funds within a fragmented, power-diffuse system of public education. This same challenge, which is present throughout the country and especially within urban districts, has led to more interrogation of current education government systems.

The point here isn’t to get bogged down in the details – rather, it is to emphasize the ripe opportunity for alternative forms of governance. On the radar are shifts to mayoral control, blended and distance learning, and most radically, a move away from the district system entirely.

To close and to put these challenges in context, we turn to Thomas Jefferson once more. Writing in 1786, well before his presidency or his letter to W.C. Jarvis, (the letter referenced above) Jefferson asserted that “the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people.” Why? Not simply because we “love the poorly educated” or because we are falling behind internationally. As Jefferson says, it is because “no other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

This election, we would be wise to make education a priority.

Featured photo courtesy of Chris Devers.

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