Make Education Less Partisan

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Along with its eminence on the political agenda, education has become increasingly partisan and divisive.

Those of us who care about education may rejoice that it is at the top of the political agenda these days. But there is one aspect of this happy circumstance that should give us pause: Along with its eminence, education has become increasingly partisan and divisive.

What’s wrong with this? Politicians have every right to advocate their positions on education and to debate with those who disagree with them. And the public can benefit and become more informed about policy options through such debate. Those who have argued that "education should be kept out of politics" are clearly naive and, in fact, wrong: In a democratic society, public education requires a political process, especially for its reform.

But are we forgetting something? Namely, the possible negative effects of too much partisanship in educational debates? Is it not possible that, just as too much conflict and alienation between parents can hurt the development of their offspring, too much rancorous debate among adults over educational policies can poison the environment they should be creating for children? The contestants always claim that their cause is "for the good of children," but might not overheated partisanship prevent that unity of purpose and shared vision that are so important for successful education?

People wonder today why children are so wild and wayward—why they have so little respect for adult authority—why we have children shooting children, having children themselves, taking drugs, committing suicide, and joining gangs. Politicians grandstand about how they will build more jails to contain these "barbarians" in our midst. But could it be that politicians themselves have contributed to this problem by their increasingly rancorous wrangling over issues such as education, instead of getting their act together for the sake of children?

But could it be that politicians themselves have contributed to this problem by their increasingly rancorous wrangling over issues such as education, instead of getting their act together for the sake of children?

Can anything be done? There are so many educational issues to fight about: vouchers, sex education, creationism, phonics, bilingual education, teacher contracts, federal control, school prayer, and more. These can’t be brushed aside as trivial issues; they wouldn’t be controversial if they didn’t involve values and beliefs about which people feel strongly. And if the two major political parties gravitate to opposite sides on one or more of these issues, is there any way to avoid a partisan fight—one that these days is likely to be rancorous and divisive, and to produce more heat than light?

There is something that can be done: While there are many things to disagree about in education, there are also many things that can be agreed upon, especially now that we have learned so much about what successful education requires. Even while battles may rage in the media and within the political arena that surrounds them, adults of diverse interests, backgrounds, and political loyalties often find that their educational goals for children are not really all that different. Even on such contentious topics as values education, serious disagreements usually arise only in limited areas. Schools, in other words, can develop considerable unity of purpose and shared vision, despite many unresolved policy problems in the larger community. And they also will discover that unless they focus on that shared vision and work together to implement it, they are not likely to be successful.

The legitimate reason why boards of education are separated from the rest of government is not to "keep education out of politics," which is both impossible and inappropriate, but to insulate it from partisan politics—in effect, to create a separate politics for this very sensitive area of public effort, where it’s important that public schools be seen and felt not as Republican or Democratic schools, but as schools for all children, of whatever background or political affiliation—where a winner-take-all attitude is inappropriate, and where there is a need for adults to work together to create a healthy environment for children. My advice, therefore, to candidates—in the presidential election and in almost any election—is this: Make a pledge that, if elected, you will make every effort to work with members of the other party, and with all the stakeholders in education, to find as much common ground as possible, and where it is found, to work together to implement it. Point out that policy thinking and reform experience in recent years have shown that there are many areas where there can be consensus—such as the need for much higher learning expectations and standards, accountability for meeting those standards, more school-level autonomy with accountability for results, professional working conditions for teachers, real partnership with families and communities, increased responsibility for students—in short, for transforming public schools into more powerful institutions for engaging a much higher percentage of children in successful learning.

These need not be partisan issues; they can appeal to members of all parties. There may be disagreements about important details within this framework, such as the best ways to establish standards, measure achievement, and hold everyone accountable, but these often need not be partisan battles either; they just have to be worked out, once the basic framework is agreed to as a shared vision that all can cooperate to fulfill.

A number of school districts and states have begun to unite around comprehensive, systemic school reform agendas along these lines, with considerable bipartisan and communitywide support. A major force in this consensus-building has been the business community, whose main relation to schools a few years ago typically consisted of opposing taxes. Now people in the business community are increasingly seeing that it is in their interest to support strong and successful public schools—and the collaboration among all the partners needed to achieve them.

Likewise, teachers’ unions and school boards are increasingly learning to work in partnership instead of through adversarial conflicts. Both parties are beginning to realize that, where they look for it, they often find far more common ground for improving schools than might have been expected. And where they don’t cooperate, they only weaken support for public schools.

Usually, the result of these consensus efforts has been increased funding for education. Should this surprise us—that taxpayers are more likely to support a program on which people are united than one over which everyone is constantly fighting?

Schools can develop considerable unity of purpose and shared vision, despite many unresolved policy problems in the larger community.

Think what an example this would set for teachers, parents, and students—to see the adults of their community, their state, or their nation reasonably united about the basic framework for education.

Is it too idealistic to expect politicians to behave this way? On the contrary, people are fed up with seeing their supposed leaders always fighting over education instead of working together for children.

Candidates would be well advised to take a lesson from the wisdom of Solomon and be aware that parents, who care deeply about their children, as well as voters, who care about the future of our society, are likely to vote for those candidates who seem least likely to "cut our children in half" for their own political gain. This year’s elections provide an opportunity for politicians to show how they would help unite people, instead of divide them over education, and I predict that those who are the most convincing on this score will gain votes by it.

David S. Seeley is a professor of education at the City University of New York-College of Staten Island and is the author of Education Through Partnership (Ballinger, 1981).

Vol. 19, Issue 34, Page 46

Published in Print: May 3, 2000, as Make Education Less Partisan
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