SOUTH CAROLINA: Time for Republicans to Get Real About Education

BlogHer Original Post

More and more polls place Gov. Mitt Romney at the top of the Republican presidential candidate heap as we head into the South Carolina Primary Saturday, known as the grounds where gloves come off and party nominees are made plain.

Yet, our public education system seems one issue that isn't likely to separate the big from the little dogs.

How can we be more than a dozen debates into this race and yet education's not been a greater focal point?

As the seeming front-runner, Romney's position on public education needs some further clarification. Sadly, even his website provides not one single page on his education position, though there's endless references to "jobs, jobs, jobs."

South Carolina GOP Debate
Jan 19, 2012 - North Charleston, South Carolina; USA - (L-R) Former Senator RICK SANTORUM, Former Governor MITT ROMNEY, Former Congressman NEWT GINGRICH and Congressman RON PAUL participates in the Southern Republican Presidential Debate that is taking place at the North Charleston Coliseum as part of the South Carolina GOP Primary. Copyright 2012 Jason Moore. (Image: © Jason Moore/ZUMAPRESS.com)

No question that presidential candidates must address the economic downturn. But who's going to get those "jobs, jobs, jobs?" Our kids or China's?

A cross-section on thoughts about education issues in The Washington Post's The Answer Sheet from the Iowa Caucus frontrunners, Romney, Senator Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul, leaves one with the sense that these candidates aren't the least bit comfortable or particularly interested in this topic.

There's lots of "positions," but no ideas on how to proceed.

Could this be fear of union backlash (as if they could get that support)? Or are they just misreading the importance of this issue to the electorate?

Were they to save a few thousand on polling and just call me, I can tell them I great care about the future of our public education system as do many of my friends and family members.

In a recent Commentary magazine piece, 41 writers and thought leaders shared whether they felt optimistic or pessimistic about America's future.

One of the "pessimists" was author Brooke Allen, who stated plainly that her root cause for such despair hinged on the state of American education.

She wrote:

"We are constantly confronted with dismal statistics on test scores, our students' performance relative to other developed nations, etc. But what is the reason for this, and what is the solution? It's not an answer, I think, to throw more money at the problem. As the parent of college students and as a teacher of college students, I've noticed that kids from "good" high schools (both public and private) are often as ill-prepared as any others. The problem seems to me a deep-seated one: we simply have no consensus as a nation, no unified philosophy of what an educated person should know. Perhaps this relates to the breakdown of government; we have arrived at no consensus as a nation about what a government should do."

It's hard not to share some, if not much, of her frustrations -- especially when confronted with "new" leadership possibilities who seem to look like the same old, same old.

Head-to-head polling with President Barack Obama shows him with a sliver of a lead over Romney. (Awful nice of the Republicans to provide him his first positive poll in months, perhaps years.)

And unlike his Republican challengers, Obama's been connecting the dots between education reform to job creation and Race To The Top, which tied federal funds to assessment and results.

Obama also appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who toured the country last year pushing the need for education reform -- which actually ruffled quite a few liberal feathers and annoyed the National Education Association.

Recently, the president got lumped in with House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a Public Policy Blogger post, which noted that neither quite grasps the achievement gap relevant to poverty.

Clearly, there's room for more voices, and I would like to see Republican candidates out there driving the education locomotive rather than fearing being run over by it.

I'm no economics genius, but it seems like a pretty simple concept: Good education means quality workforce.

Even NPR put these thoughts together, noting in this recent piece on Romney's shaky education platform: "If anything, President Obama's education platform may hold more appeal to Republican voters than it does to Democrats."

Oh dear.

As the ascerbic comedian Lewis Black once postulated: "Democrats have no ideas, and Republicans have bad ideas."

Apply that sentiment to public education, and Black's glib generalities are actually backwards. And given a choice between the two, I might choose bad ideas over none.

It's high time the Republican Party gets real about the public education system, dig in and find truly viable solutions.

I'm not suggesting they propose a drastic overhaul of the entire system in just four years. That's ripe for gimmicky promises dressed up with fancy marketing and quippy catch-phrases and slogans, like "hope" and "change."

Meaningful change takes time, and eventually gives people, like Ms. Allen, hope.

A genuine course of action could lead to viable, tangible and positive results.

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Consider these possibilies, if you will: expanding school choice by figuring out how to implement publicly financed vouchers so families can pay for tuition at any school, public or private; or strengthening classroom teaching outcomes by sifting through studies of No Child Left Behind's testing strategy and proposing a performance metric to improve student achievement.

Either of these ideas poses gargantuan challenges, creates an atmosphere for healthy debate, and puts Republicans (candidates and their voters) firmly in the education discussion.

Or shoot, pick another battle, but it's time for someone with guts and vision to stand up and be a leader.

Further, it must be impressed upon these candidates to run on something other than the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education as a "solution." They shouldn't even consider such silly answers to such serious questions.

They might as well just hit the buzzer and ask to "pass."

It sends the same message.

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