Seizing the "Education Vote"

Recently, POLITICO ran no less than five articles from the likes of Arne Duncan, Lamar Alexander and others regarding education. This is one topic that has not been debated in the national media by Obama or Romney except when it comes to extending low rates for student loans set to expire at the end of June. Even there, debate is lacking in that both agree that the low rates should be extended. In the Republican primaries, perhaps the only thing Romney has stated is that he favors the dismantling of the federal Department of Education. However, this may be more pandering to the staunch conservatives in the party rather than a principled approach to the issue. I have argued in previous articles here that there is a role for the federal Department of Education although that role should be limited and the federal government should ideally extricate itself from K-12 education.

One article cites Obama’s “accomplishments” in the field of education. First, he has prioritized K-12 educational reform initiatives and, for a Democrat, he has been more open to reforms embraced by Republicans; certainly more so than any other Democrat. Secondly, he has helped states avoid the sometimes costly (in terms of compliance) Bush mandates under NCLB (more on this in a bit). He has expanded federal financial aid for college, has funneled more than $100 billion to states to retain teachers through his porkulus package, and increased discretionary funding by the Department of Education. How some of these items can be viewed as an accomplishment is somewhat suspect.

Educational reform ranks 4th on the list of concerns of American voters after the economy, health care and the federal deficit/debt. Even still, only 4% of respondents list education as their primary concern. However, there is no doubt that a quality education is the greatest predictor of future success in the workplace and life in general. It the best means by which to shrink the growing income gap in the country and there are a host of other societal advantages to a quality education. For example, high school graduates are decidedly less likely to be incarcerated, to suck up other social services, or to live below the poverty line.

Additionally, a coherent educational reform policy would resonate with two demographics where, in certain states, Romney needs to at least make some inroads- women and Hispanics. Just as women are the ones who manage household finances, they are also more likely to be involved in the education of their children. And as I have said repeatedly in the past, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, education ranks higher on their list of concerns than immigration reform. Hence, what Romney needs to do is put forth a realistic policy that appeals not only to these groups, but that strike the general electorate as rational and commonsense and, most importantly, not costly. He also needs to illustrate the pitfalls of Obama’s alleged reform-minded agenda.

The results of the Wisconsin recall election point us in the right direction. In this election, the teacher unions come out a decided loser. They invested a lot in ousting Walker and they failed to make their case. While they may decry that outside spending by advocacy groups drowned out their argument, a more realistic conclusion is that the voters of Wisconsin realized that out of control teacher unions holding the state by the balls was not improving the outcome of education. As recent polls have indicated, teacher unions nationwide are increasingly being perceived as being the biggest impediment to true educational reform in this country. As for Romney and the teacher’s unions, its a sum zero game anyway. Both unions- the NEA and AFT- have already endorsed Obama although they do so with some provisos. Hence, Romney could and should adopt the strategy used by Pawlenty in Minnesota: “I am going to win so its better that you work with me than against me lest you lose your seat at the table.”

Thus far, the “debate” has been at the periphery. There are differences of opinion between Obama and Romney as regards class size, confronting unions and school vouchers. This last item is a perfect proposal to be exploited by the Republicans. Leaving aside the bogus church/separation debate for a moment, the only thing keeping many families from choosing a private education for their children is simple economics- they do not have the money. What better way to portray oneself as in touch with the less fortunate than to support vouchers for private education so that qualified children have as much a chance at a quality education as the more fortunate? The money is going to be allocated at all levels regardless. Why not make those per pupil expenditures portable on a sliding scale based on household income? This way, those who can afford to send their children to private schools can still do so while those who are financially unable would be given help by the government to do so. Of course, in past articles I have stated that the Department of Education should be retained, but reformed and its mission redefined so that it totally extricates itself from K-12 education. But, lets just assume the political reality dictates otherwise. If the US government spends X amount of dollars per pupil, that expenditure would follow the pupil to private school if the parents opt to do so. Again, using a sliding scale with a maximum cap would might actually save the government money in the long run while improving the chances of a pupil receiving a quality education. If the government- federal, state, or local- wants to avoid the bogus church/state question, parochial schools could be excluded although I would argue against that provided the government did not discriminate with respect to religious denominations.

This, more than any program to enhance transparency or providing school “report cards,” would revert control of K-12 education back to localities and especially individual parents. Also, Romney needs to stress the fact that Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is a step in the right direction in that it encourages competition for limited resources provided reforms are undertaken. However, this policy is rife with pitfalls. First, the “reforms” generally have to adhere to what Obama believes is reform. Thus, it stifles true innovation and limits it to what Washington bureaucrats believe is the “correct reform.” Secondly, it would further solidify federal control over K-12 education, a venue where it does not belong. In short, in an effort to gain these grants, state or local policy is subjugated to federal policy. It also leads to a framework for federal standards and testing regimens which would simply negate any local innovation and reform. In short, if the federal government is to have anything like this program, they need to reward academic success, not legislative compliance with federal dictates. Otherwise, we simply have NCLB by another name. As Lamar Alexander has stated, many of the Obama dictates are transforming the Department of Education into a national Board of Education, the last thing this country needs.

And this is what we see through Obama’s waiver grants from NCLB. Those waivers come with a price- subjecting oneself to the federal government. Interestingly, nowhere in the US Constitution is education mentioned, yet every state constitution guarantees a public education. Subjecting oneself to the will of the state makes sense, but not to the federal government. Therefore, the decision by Texas to stay away from ceding state control to Washington is the desired course and other states need to follow suit.

And while it is true that Obama has advocated merit pay systems for teachers and increased use of charter schools, he really has not gone far enough in either area. When it comes to teacher pay, these items need to be decided at the state and local level, not lobbied at the federal level. Across the board increases make no sense whatsoever because the average or below average teacher (who happens to have tenure) receives the same pay increase as the best teachers. That is inherently unfair. In New Jersey, the NJEA has a policy called “50 by 20.” This means that it is their goal that all teachers would have a base salary of $50,000 a year by 2020. That is $50,000 for walking out of a college and not teaching a single day in one’s young life. That is ludicrous! As I have said on many occasions, I care less what a teacher makes if they are worth it. If they make six figures and deserve it, great. But there is no way in hell you can tell me with a straight face that every teacher is worth a minimum $50,000 a year.

We must also base teacher pay and increases on performance, not their resumes. Studies have shown that teachers with a doctorate degree, several certifications and 25 years of teaching perform about as well as a teacher with 5 years teaching experience and the minimum degree and certification. Book knowledge is all well and good, but it is certainly no guarantee of classroom performance. Instead, teacher pay raises need to be based on performance using both objective and subjective criteria preferably jointly agreed upon by the local administration and teacher’s unions. A base COLA increase would be the starting point with graduated increases the higher the performance appraisal, the way it is done in private industry. Furthermore, school officials screen vigorously for qualified teachers. There is no shortage of people with teaching certificates seeking jobs, even before the recent recession. But officials pay greater attention to screening potential new hires than they do to their current crop of teachers. This appraisal system would go a long way to addressing the problem of post-hiring screening.

Naturally, tenure laws need to be reformed. Besides the fact that they have been used to retain unqualified teachers, they have outlived their original purpose- encouraging academic freedom. Instead, they now serve as a rigid seniority system that punishes potentially better teachers. Perhaps ceding tenure rights to civil service rules is a better vehicle for job security and would free local school boards greater leeway in allowing teachers to improve themselves or lose their jobs. In the alternative, expanding the grant of tenure out to 5 or 6 years would be an improvement with perhaps limited tenure at three years- a happy compromise between the two extremes. In either case, tenure is a system that cries for long overdue reform.

Any article would be incomplete without some words on higher education funding. This is a problem that the federal government created. The problem is the high cost of college tuition that has far outpaced increases in household median incomes. Too many people are too reliant on loans. Extending the current interest rate- set to double at the end of June- is a short-term solution that Romney has openly endorsed. But the long term solution is not to inject more federal dollars into grants and loans. The solution is for lending institutions to grant loans based on sound underwriting practices and perhaps limit interest rates within proscribed parameters. The current situation was created in 2006. If left alone under the old system, students would be paying 2.5% interest on loans based on market force economics. Instead, we today have a system where limited federal dollars are essentially chasing increasing tuition costs. As long as this happens, colleges have no incentive to keep costs down for everyone. Put another way, the federal government has to start the process of starving the beast it created. Along the way, we may see less graduates of African-American Studies or a graduate in Lesbian and Feminist Literature, but I do not think that would harm the country.

Mitt Romney has the unique opportunity to seize an issue that cuts across all demographics. Republican reforms like charter schools, tenure reform, merit pay increases, pension reform, and reverting control of K-12 education back to state and local government and giving parents informed choices of where to send their children to school are winning ideas that are minimally or no cost solutions. Federal standards and control creates a one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to education. Unfortunately, a serious by-product is the unseen bigotry of mediocrity- not a race to the top, but a race to the middle. In a global economy, that is a scenario we can ill-afford as a nation.