From the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, By Valerie Strauss
It was obviously too difficult for the authors of the 2012 Republican Party platform to hide their contempt for public education, because it is evident throughout the section on schooling.
What’s more, the education section is used to promote the party’s cultural values, going on at some length about support for abstinence education and its opposition to using federal funds in “mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socio-emotional screening program.” The message appears to be that schools should teach kids not to have sex but shouldn’t use federal funds to screen students who may be so mentally ill that they are dangerous in a classroom.
The platform says that school choice is “the most important driving force for renewing our schools,” and proceeds to hail homeschooling, private school vouchers and private higher education.
It insists, incorrectly, that “since 1965, the federal government has spent $2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with no substantial improvement in academic achievement or high school graduation rates (which currently are 59 percent for African-American students and 63 percent for Hispanics).”
Actually, student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called the country’s report card, shows substantial progress in closing the achievement gap over the past several decades.
For example, 80 percent of black students in fourth grade scored below basic in 1992, but by last year, it was 49 percent. The percentage of white students scoring below basic in 1992 was 40 percent, and last year it was 16 percent. Reading score improvements have been significant, too.
But why let facts get in the way?
Interestingly, the one program that gets mentioned by name in the education section of the platform is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides publicly funded “vouchers” worth up to $7,500 for families to use to pay private school tuition.
“The Republican-founded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should be expanded as a model for the rest of the country,” the platform says, without spelling out whether it believes all public school students should receive vouchers. Some Republican leaders support this notion.
The $14 million program — which has served more than 3,700 students, most of them black or Hispanic — was created in 2004 by a Republican-led Congress but lost favor under the Obama administration, which opposes vouchers, seeing them as a move toward privatization of public education and as an impractical way of giving all students an excellent education.
The administration wanted to end the D.C. voucher program, but House Speaker John Boehner made it a personal crusade to save it, and maneuvered the White House into striking a deal to preserve it.
Vouchers are one area where Republicans and the Obama administration part company when it comes to school reform — and it’s a fundamental difference.
One can accept that Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan believe in public education — even if you think the bulk of their school reform policies are hurting public schools. But there are too many Republicans who call public schools “government schools” and want the public education system entirely privatized.
Here are other questionable items in the GOP platform:
* It says that one thing that works in school to improve student achievement is “periodic rigorous assessments on the fundamentals, especially math, science, reading history and geography.”
Actually, there is nothing in legitimate education research that tells us that is true.
* It says, “We advocate the policies and methods that have proven effective: building on the basics, especially STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) and phonics; ending social promotions; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards.”
There is no evidence that shows merit pay or social promotion are effective motivators.
As for strong leadership by principals, superintendents and locally elected school boards, Republican leaders in a number of states are moving to strip power from school boards and tell principals and superintendents how to do their jobs.