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Waiting for the candidates to debate education

Posted by Jim Stergios  September 12, 2012 08:15 AM

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There are many lessons to learn from this year’s two major party conventions, many of which extend beyond education—the focus of this blog. The “scriptedness” of the events was only outshone by the color coordination of the sets and clothing. Viewers and attendees came away feeling like the proverbial man behind the curtain (as in the Wizard of Oz) had projected words onto the teleprompters and that those stepping to the mikes were little more than political actors. The exceptions—Clint Eastwood’s chair routine and Mayor Villaraigosa’s handling of the vote to re-insert “God and Jerusalem” into the Democratic Party platform—were cringe-inducing as much for the substance as for the contrast from the rest of the convention schedule.

The second takeaway for me was that both parties have lost any sense of the civic attachments that once characterized and distinguished this country. In the second book of Democracy in America, Tocqueville recognized our lively political associations but he famously heralded “those associations that are formed in civil life without reference to political objects":

The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies , in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

The Republicans made a nod to these non-governmental associations, but almost exclusively in terms of family, church, and the kids’ sports teams. While important to many of us, the repetition of these three forms of associations gave the sense that these are the start and end of the American associationism, which is what the original Bill of Rights aimed to protect. The Republicans did not recognize the earthquake in associationism caused by social media (admittedly many of which are vapid or “futile”, but many of which aren’t); worse, they omitted any thought of the “cause-focused” associations that are to this day so important. Think people fundraising to help a neighbor in need, to build a YMCA or fight cancer through the PanMass Challenge; the numerous support networks for immigrants; volunteers in non-profits; those for and against Abolition, Prohibition (+ and -), women’s right to vote, expanding the teaching of US History in our schools, same-sex marriage, and more.

The Democrats made a nod to many of the causes—at least the ones dear to progressives—but when they spoke of what binds us together, they spoke almost primarily of government. Through government, their issues would be addressed and associations nurtured, even financially supported. If Republicans communicated a fairly pedestrian and highly suburban view of associations, Democrats communicated that such associations are no longer non-governmental.

This impoverishment on both sides has affected how the major parties discuss education.
A number of speakers including US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Bill Clinton, and the president all made arguments that their efforts have elevated standards around the country—something that states and local were incapable of doing. Readers of this blog know (1, 2, 3 and many others) that my view is that this is a top-down imposition where states and localities are fully capable of having these discussions in the open and that they are issues that parents must associate about and discuss. The same is true of all the rhetoric on teacher evaluations, testing and all the rest.

Democrats actively involved in the national party often now come with a view that the party is to create a “more perfect union” that is vertically integrated and that integrates non-governmental associations. The brouhaha over the screening of Won’t Back Down is just another sign that the party is having an internal debate on the extent to which parents can have a say in the education of their children.

The most controversial thing to happen at the Democratic National Convention this week may end up being a movie screening.

On Monday afternoon, a Hollywood film called "Won't Back Down" -- which opens in theaters nationwide on Sept. 28 -- will be shown to a select crowd of convention-goers in Charlotte, N.C., just as it was one week prior at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

But unlike Tampa, where the promoters had little concern about making waves with the party establishment and had no trouble when they ran the idea past the Republican National Committee, the request for a Charlotte screening went to the highest levels of the Obama administration…

In Tampa, the movie received an overwhelmingly positive response. During one pivotal scene involving Viola Davis' character and her son, people could be heard crying throughout the theater.

In Charlotte, the film's promoters are expecting protests outside the theater, and possibly some inside as well.

Why all the fuss?

"Won't Back Down" stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mother determined to get her daughter out of their failing public elementary school and Davis as a teacher at the school who joins with her to gather parent and teacher signatures behind a proposal to take over the school.

It's a movie about the push for school choice, a movement that has been gaining momentum around the country for the past several years. It is also a film about teachers' unions, who are one of the Democratic Party's biggest and most loyal sources of political contributions.

If Democrats are having an internal battle over choice, Republicans are having an internal debate over elements that go to a broader education agenda beyond choice. Given a desire to move away from most things stemming from the Bush administration, there should be no surprise that it is hard to find a Republican who today supports NCLB and its mixed record: Conservatives and middle-of-the-road Republicans both feel the need to move on. But they are a little lost at sea on education. There is no clear agenda beyond choice. While all Republicans support parental choice, the main agenda outside of that belongs to establishment Republicans, like Jeb Bush, who embrace US Ed Secretary Duncan’s centralization of standards, tests, curricular materials and instructional practices in Washington. (A recent RTS post discussed the weakness of the Bush establishment view.)

My wishes for the two parties? They’re simple:


  • That the Democrats stop substituting government for associations, and not insist that the government is the glue that holds us together. Our rich store of associations means that what holds us together is a lot deeper and nimble than anything government bureaucracy. We just need to find how to leverage these American qualities—especially when the alternative is to undertake policies that break three federal laws.

  • That the Republicans provide a real alternative to the Democrats’ vision of a centralized Ministry of Education, but not simply based on a vision of individual choice—however important that is. While “Won’t Back Down” is inspirational, and its clear emphasis on parental association and bootstrapping may prove a big addition to urban school reform, a major party needs more than that. They need a vision.

A real debate on education would be so good for the country. But until Republicans settle on a course, there is no way for them to champion education as a major cause. The risk to their party is not small: They are handing an issue (that they championed at the state level for over a decade) back to the Democrats.

Republicans can’t blame the unions if they themselves can’t settle on a coherent set of ideas.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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