Categorized | 2007 Enterprise Articles



The myths of public education or why education needs politics

by Howard Stephenson

Utah newspapers have been abuzz about a proposal brought recently by
Representative Carl Wimmer and originally by Senator Curt Bramble to
require candidates for the State School Board to go through the same
election process as other elected state officials. The Provo Daily
Herald threw down the gauntlet: “Someone needs to explain to us why
education needs politics.” I’m happy to pick it up.
The Herald says opponents of this proposal worry about some corrosive
effect of politics on education.
Following the fine tradition of Lake Wobegon, the Salt Lake Tribune
claims that the current “state school board elections work now, with a
high degree of success,” to keep “special interests” out of “the
classroom and the boardroom.” Instead it ensures that “independent”
candidates “without party affiliation” are selected based on their
“background and experience.”
The Deseret Morning News fears that “candidates with extreme political
agendas . . . could readily overtake mainstream candidates who do not
support the hot-button issue of the day.” In a similar vein, KSL’s Duane
Cardall argues that “having school board members beholden to the
machinations of party politics should be enough to make any sensible
Utahn cringe.”

Politics vs. a mythical education system
Either these editorialists are willfully ignoring the inherently
political nature of any publicly funded system, or they are unable to
see past the myth of a public education system governed by beneficent
philosopher kings.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that not one of these
editorial writers attended last year’s neighborhood political caucuses –
even as observers. Neighborhood caucuses are the ultimate in grassroots
politics where the political nominating process begins. Delegates are
elected to represent their neighbors at state and county conventions
where they decide who goes on the ballot to represent their parties.
These editorial writers have a mistaken notion of political nominations
occuring in smoke-filled back rooms by party bosses. What they don’t
realize is that if you like the jury process in our judicial system,
you’ll love the delegate process in political conventions. The delegates
serve in a jury-type process where they scrutinize the candidates up
close and personal. It’s far better than a political primary ballot
where they winners thrive on slick mailers and ten second sound bites.

Politics already pervades public education
Whether the editorial writers like it or not, politics pervades
governance of public education. Perhaps the simplest way of measuring
the “politicalness” of an issue is to count the number of groups (also
known as “special interests”) organized around that issue. For example,
compare groceries with public education. Both are critically important
to our well-being, but where groceries have virtually no interest groups
focused on reform, i.e. groups calling for an end to the bread lines,
the number of public education special interests goes on ad nauseum.
The PTA, the UEA, the AFT, the Utah School Boards Association, the Utah
School Business Administrators Association, the Utah School
Superintendents Association, the Utah School Employees Association, the
Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities, the Utah School
Counselors Association, the Utah Consortium of Education Leaders, the
Utah Association of Secondary School Principals, Utah Association of
Elementary School Principals, Voices for Utah Children.
Virtually all of these special interests—and this list is by no means
exhaustive—represent, or claim to represent various groups in Utah’s
classrooms and boards of education. Why are there so many special
interests focused on public education? Political scientists write
lengthy treatises to explore that question, but the simplest answer is
that we have important differences of opinion about how best to
structure and operate our system of public education. And since we can’t
all agree on one solution, we agree to use a set of rules to choose who
selects the solutions, and which solutions they’ll select. In other
words, we use politics.

These rules are manipulated and twisted; tempers flare; and emotion too
often trumps reason. That’s why politics is so distasteful. However,
that distaste is a small price, compared to the alternative methods of
problem solving prevailing in Kosovo, Darfur and Afghanistan. And as the
Daily Herald wrote, “Emotions are a sign that people care, and intense
debate energizes the quest for truth. The collision of opposing ideas
helps truth to emerge in a livelier fashion than it would in a lukewarm
atmosphere of apathy.”

What the people want or what special interests want?
Political parties would ensure education reform comes from the people
and not just the special interests which currently nominate school board
candidates outside public scrutiny. Lest we forget, the need for reform
of public education has been a common refrain of both the supporters and
opponents of vouchers. Former State School Board member Tim Beagley, who
wrote, “Our public schools are in need of improvement and I believe we
now have a window of opportunity to make some meaningful changes.” And
The Daily Herald said, “While a 62 percent to 38 percent vote may be a
runaway as elections go, the opinion of more than one-third of the
electorate that change is needed is not something that can be taken
lightly.”

While these assessments are all quite recent, the contrasting attitudes
of Utah’s editorialists highlight either a disconnect preventing
otherwise sober observers of public life from recognizing the need for
reform in public education, or willful obfuscation in pursuit of a
specific agenda.

In either case, it is absurd to lament the introduction of politics into
the governance of public education. For my part, I believe the editorial
writers are unable to distinguish reality from myth as they opine about
a process they know little about first hand. The other alternative
requires that they are engaging in the very political subterfuge they
decry.



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