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Both parties need to stand up for public education

Dr. Blll Smith, Community Voices • Jun 24, 2018 at 8:30 AM

In recent months, teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona have gone on strike to restore funding for essential school programs and educators’ salaries and benefits. Among the problems they protested were broken desks, tattered and outdated textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, a four-day school week (in parts of Oklahoma), and salaries so inadequate some teachers were working two and three jobs.

Being an eternal optimist, I’m hoping that at least some of our elected officials are making good sense of these events. In that positive spirit, I’d like to offer a few thoughts for political consideration.

However, even as I make this statement, I have little hope that Republicans will promote any of the following policy ideas. The Grand Old Party is now the Party of Trump, and he and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have made it clear that they have one educational goal in mind: the privatization of public education, an aim they seek to achieve by relentlessly denigrating public schools, depriving them of resources (in order to prove that they’re ineffective), and promoting vouchers and charter schools in any way possible. Given President Trump’s unparalleled stubbornness, rejection of rationality, and commitment to serving the wealthy through the privatization of public services, it’s hard to imagine any future change in his anti-education agenda. It’s equally as hard to imagine other Republican officials challenging Trump on this issue.

So this column is essentially an appeal to Democratic politicians who have the courage to break out of their party’s old norms and consider some alternatives to past policies. Before I go any further, I’ll repeat a line that I used to shock and befuddle a young volunteer who called me to solicit funds for the Democratic Party a while back. As I told her, I’m not asking Democratic leaders to take an enormous leap to the left on public education. I’m just asking them to embrace the educational philosophy of Dwight David Eisenhower, a conservative Republican president who never doubted the importance of strong public schools or the need to provide them with the resources to succeed.

The truth is, Democrats, it’s been difficult to see much light between you and Republicans on educational issues over the last three decades — and that’s pretty remarkable when you consider how hard they’ve been lurching to the right during those years. At best, you’ve been silently complicit while they promoted vouchers, charters, and severe cuts to educational funding. At worst, you have enacted the same kinds of policies. Even President Obama fell for the bogus notion that charter schools would address racial inequality by giving poor urban children an array of exemplary educational options. Thank goodness for the NAACP for examining charter schools closely, correctly assessing them as failures, and calling for a moratorium on their expansion. I hope you paid attention to that.

The Party of Trump has given you an enormous gift, Democrats, and you need to seize this opportunity. For starters, you should know that most parents like the schools their children attend. Since 1985, Gallup has conducted an annual poll on Americans’ attitudes toward their public schools, and in each of these assessments, more than 60 percent (and often more than 70 percent) of parents of public school students have given a grade of A or B to the schools their children attend.

The 2017 poll also indicated the majority of American parents are opposed to vouchers and charters. Further, referendums on vouchers have failed decisively in numerous states, including a 2000 referendum in DeVos’ home state of Michigan. In solid red Utah, voters rejected vouchers eight times, with the 2007 referendum failing in all 29 of the state’s counties.

So for starters, Democrats, you can separate yourselves definitively from the Party of Trump by expressing your support for public education and making it clear you are adamantly opposed to any plans to undermine that vital democratic institution and privatize it in order to benefit wealthy investors. As the data above indicate, you don’t even need to sell the idea. The American public is already there. They just don’t know where you stand.

You should also note public sentiment toward the teachers who recently went on strike is generally positive. In an April poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 78 percent of respondents said America’s teachers are underpaid, and 52 percent approved of teachers striking to protest low pay and funding cuts.

In anticipation of readers charging that I am advocating for labor unrest, let me be clear. I don’t like strikes either, but I applaud the teachers who stood up for their students and communities and said that having to work two or three jobs was not only unjust, but bad for the children they teach. I admire the teachers in places like Oklahoma who said they tolerated large class sizes, tattered and outdated textbooks, and even a four-day week in parts of the state as long as they could, but ultimately decided a strike was a moral imperative under such conditions.

By at least restoring educational funding to pre-recession levels, Democrats, you not only have an opportunity to do what’s right for our young people, but you also can restore a modicum of harmony to our deeply divided nation. Teachers don’t want to walk out of the classroom, and voters don’t want our children’s schools to be political battlegrounds. Pay educators fairly and give them the resources they need, and they’ll serve without complaint. They always have.

Democrats, it is completely unacceptable for you to avoid taking clear educational policy positions while pointing to Trump and saying, “Vote for me; I’m not like him.” You need to stand for something. Stating clearly, emphatically, and often that you support public education and will work hard for educational improvement is both good policy and good politics. And for goodness sakes, be loud about your support for public education. Someone like me who consumes the news from multiple sources should not have to go online to find out what his party’s education platform is in a presidential election year.

Yes, the Party of Trump will call you socialists, or possibly even communists, for being in favor of anything public. Just remember, Eisenhower would have been by your side, and he understood and exemplified patriotism and service to country in a way that Trump and his followers never will.

As for the leaders of the political entity formerly known as the GOP, if you’d like to come to your senses and rediscover the values that once guided you, I think you’ll find that most Americans, including many in your own midst, will welcome that rebirth. As an educator and a citizen concerned for the future of our country, I know I will. Nothing would make me happier than to have our two major parties competing for votes by engaging in a civil, thoughtful, fact-driven debate about how best to prepare our children for a challenging and uncertain future. I might be wrong, but I think the American public wants that too. Our children certainly deserve it.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect the official positions of the Johnson City Press.

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