Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Education: One of the Most Important, and Most Neglected, Isues in This Presidential Campaign

In recent weeks and months, we have returned regularly to prudential questions about government programs and government spending, as well as private and religious initiatives and alternatives, and their value and efficacy in creating the conditions for human thriving. On the Mirror of Justice, our debates about such policies are further influenced by Catholic social teaching about the preferential option for the poor.

Within the vast and ever-increasing range of government projects and spending programs at all levels of government, the single most important government public service has to be access to a quality education. For most American families, government provides no benefit that is more direct (in terms of prominent role in their lives) or more substantial (in terms of financial value) than a free education for their children. For the disadvantaged, no conceivable government program offers greater promise for moving upward on the economic ladder than assuring educational opportunities.

While a college degree may be the tool to reach the highest rungs of the economic ladder, a high school diploma is the ticket out of poverty. In its 2007 “Profile of the Working Poor” (here), the Bureau of Labor Statistics using 2005 data found that the adults who did not graduate from high school were much more likely to fall among the working poor (more than 14 percent), as contrasted with those who obtained a high school diploma (6.6 percent). Among African-Americans, the working poverty is higher at each level of educational achievement, but even here the poverty rate for those with a high school degree and no college education is half that of those who did not complete high school.

Catholics have long had a particular interest in education. The original universities were created by the Catholic Church. Catholic elementary, secondary, and higher education have been central to the Catholic experience in America for centuries. And Catholics always have sought to integrate the highest of academic standards with faith, so that families do not have to choose between ensuring a quality education and moral formation for their children. Thus, broader opportunities and educational choice are central to the Catholic vision of education. So education ought to be central to our policy discussions on the Mirror of Justice.

And yet, during this presidential campaign season, educational policy has been a largely neglected subject (see here):

● During the first presidential debate between Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, education was mentioned a couple of times in passing by Senator Obama, who said without elaboration that he wanted to increase funding for education, specifically early childhood education. Senator Obama also briefly listed making college more affordable among various measures to ensure that Americans can better compete in the world economy.

● During the second presidential debate, the word “education” was uttered only once, when Senator Obama repeated his statement from the first debate that “we’ve got to deal with education so that our young people are competitive in a global economy.” Senator Obama later clarified that he was speaking about making a college education more affordable (not speaking about elementary and secondary education).

● During the vice presidential debate, education got slightly more play. In answer to a question about spending priorities, Senator Biden said that “[w]e cannot slow up on education, because that’s the engine that is going to give us the economic growth and competitiveness that we need.” While Senator Biden gets points for recognizing the vital importance of education, he hardly pins himself down on any policy or spending plans. Governor Palin was no better in this respect, saying “with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving.” As the only specific description of educational policy that evening , albeit brief and vague, Governor Palin added that No Child Left Behind needs to be made more flexible (by which she presumably meant that the burdens on the states to achieve standards goals should be eased, a suggestion that may conflict with her simultaneous statement during the debate that educational standards should be raised). Senator Biden later lamented that Senator McCain had not supported sufficient funding for education. Both Governor Palin and Senator Biden also spoke about affordability of college tuition, although without specifics on addressing the problem.

In sum, in the most prominent appearances of the candidates with the largest audiences, neither of the campaigns highlighted education or offered detailed plans and proposals about education policy. Through the debates, we’ve received little more than vague talk about money and spending.

In one sense, the limited attention to education by the presidential and vice-presidential candidates might be expected. Educational policy generally should be reserved to state and local government, where decisions on educational priorities are made more closely to the people affected, and where the lion’s share of education funding always has and always will flow.

Still, the federal government plays an important supporting, and sometimes catalytic, role in education. Recognizing that the actual provision of public education is a central job of state and local governments, the primary role of the federal government ― and of the nation’s top executive ― instead is to articulate themes and goals of educational progress. What the President says about the central purpose of education may matter greatly, especially as those principles are promoted by executive agencies through funded studies, conferences, accreditation standards, and spending rules. Even when the share of federal funding is but a fraction of overall expenditures on education, the strings attached to that spending may cause significant shifts in educational priorities at the state and local level. Moreover, a presidential administration may influence the nature of educational reform efforts, by shifting attention to or away from parents and educational reformers as contrasted with teachers’ unions and supposed experts in colleges of education. In these respects, the Administration’s statements and policies matter ― not so much because the federal government can directly dictate educational policies or directly implement educational change ― but because the Administration’s stance may either encourage or discourage educational reform at the state and local level. Finally, because everything important in our society today eventually ends up as the subject of litigation, the federal judges appointed by a President may matter greatly when court challenges are made to educational reform and school choice initiatives.

In that context of the role of the federal government and a presidential administration in setting the tone for educational policy, what can we learn from the records and statements of the two major party candidates for President? Tracking down specific and meaningful educational policy positions from the two campaigns is frustrating (see here). Senator Obama proposes adding $10 billion in federal funding for pre-kindergarten programs. While that appears unobjectionable, the amount of proposed new funding is relatively small compared to overall education spending in the United States (estimated at $536 billion in 2004-05) and would be distributed to school districts for spending within their existing structures (meaning that any weaknesses in public education structure and policies in particular districts would simply be magnified). In any event, informed observers expect that such educational spending increases are much less likely after the financial markets bailout (a questionable measure that was supported by both candidates). In addition, both Senators McCain and Obama complain about the burdens and rigid rules of No Child Left Behind, while both nonetheless insist that federal accountability standards are necessary (each apparently believing that he will be able to arrive at the perfect formula for tweaking the assessment measures). In terms of specific programmatic prescriptions, neither campaign offers much that is inspiring or likely to bring about dramatic progress in education.

Looking to the more general educational perspectives of the candidates, an article in the Los Angeles Times helpfully reduces “the platforms to fit on the head of a pin: McCain believes in school choice and local control; Obama believes in an expansion of early childhood education and increased federal funding for education.” Given that the primary tool available to a President on education is use of the bully pulpit, these platforms give us a sense of priorities and how each candidate would promote (or impede) meaningful educational reform.

Senator McCain puts the emphasis on parents and educational choice, encouraging states and local governments to offer vouchers for disadvantaged children who wish to escape failing public schools. By contrast, Senator Obama promotes the policy positions of the teachers’ unions, continuing the same old approach of increasing spending for public schools (with little apparent payoff in educational quality), while offering no assistance to parents who desire alternative educational choices. For the briefest of moments, while campaigning during the primary in Wisconsin, Senator Obama appeared to trim back on his criticism of vouchers for poor children seeking a better education in private schools, saying that evidence of success might justify reconsideration of this idea (see here). But as soon as public attention was drawn to the statement, Senator Obama hurriedly fell back to the line of the teachers’ union and emphasized again that he had consistently and unequivocally opposed vouchers. (Like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry before him as Democratic nominees for President, Barack Obama touts the wonders of public schools for other people’s kids, while choosing to send his own children to the kind of elite private school that only the wealthy can afford.)

Most importantly, and in revealing contrast with his thin resume on most aspects of public policy, Senator Obama has a well established record on education. In the 1990s, Obama served as the executive of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an educational reform project that administered the rather enormous sum of $100 million in various efforts to improve public education in Chicago. Rather than examining the nature and effectiveness of this educational initiative overseen by Obama, most commentators have been unable to get beyond the fact that the other most prominent participant in this project was William Ayers, who is the unrepentant terrorist bomber of the radical Weather Underground group. (I recognize that some on this blog, as outlined by Eduardo Penalver a few days ago, may be uncomfortable with references to Barack Obama’s association with Ayers and certain other extremists as Obama positioned himself to advance in Chicago politics, arguing that even the mention of such matters may provoke exaggerated and hostile responses and thereby subvert public reason. While agreeing that inflammatory language by public figures should be sharply challenged, I do not agree that public understanding and reasoned debate are enhanced by deliberately avoiding discussion of formative periods in a politician’s rise to power or by refusing to inquire about that politician’s judgment when he choose to associate himself with unsavory characters. In any event, my focus here is not Ayers’ prior history of violence but rather the nature of the educational projects that he promoted, with Obama’s assistance.)

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge appears to have offered a diverse array of educational programs, including many that could be characterized as mainstream in nature. At the same time, however, William Ayers played a pivotal role in the overall project and his approach to education was and is anything but mainstream. (For more on Ayers radical vision of education as political indoctrination, see here and here.) As the principal author of the grant proposal that formed the structure of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, Ayers drafted the project to include elements that constituted a crude and overt attempt to radicalize public school children in Chicago. Insisting on separate administration of the program from the public schools, Ayers was able to create a shadow educational program that displaced regular teachers and sometimes supplanted substantive curricula with left-wing political propaganda. Nor are such characterizations of Ayers’ initiative limited to those on the political right. Some bloggers on the political left (here) have refused to play along, emphasizing that there is a meaningful difference between supporting “social justice” and the kind of authoritarian power-grab of the Ayers “social justice teaching” project that was evidenced in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

Barack Obama does not appear to have initiated these radical abuses of public education, nor is it clear that such elements were central to his vision of the project. Nonetheless, as chair of the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, Obama provided crucial support to Ayers, even to the extent of voting down alternative proposals to enhance math and science education in favor of Ayers’s politicization of public education (see here and here). Rather than using his authority as the administrator of the project to firmly insist upon going forward only with those efforts that would enhance the learning of students in the public schools, Obama was willing to approve efforts by Ayers to use public school students as a captive audience for political indoctrination. Looking at this episode in the most favorable light, Obama abdicated his responsibility to promote educational quality and meaningful reform, choosing instead to go along to get along.

Even aside from its troubling political elements, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge run by Barack Obama proved to be a failure. In August 2003, the Consortium on Chicago School Research conducted a comprehensive study of the project and found that it had had no discernible effect on educational achievement or student well-being in the Chicago public schools. As the report concluded at page 98: “During the same period, rates of gain in student achievement among Annenberg schools did not improve markedly. Across grade level, the size of one-year achievement gains remained constant or fluctuated slightly. In other words, at the end of the Challenge, students in Annenberg schools achieved at much the same rate as at the beginning. . . . There were no statisfically significant differences in student achievement between Annenberg schools and demographically similar non-Annenberg schools. This indicates that there was no Annenberg effect on achievement.” Social and psychological results from the educational project administered by Obama were also minimal, with student academic engagement rising only slightly and with students’ sense of self-efficacy and social competence actually declining during the Challenge. Again, there was no statistically significant difference in outcome on such factors from Annenberg and non-Annenberg schools.

During his short tenure in public life, Barack Obama has held only one executive position and been involved with only one significant educational project ― serving as Chair of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. With $100 million and the full support of the Chicago political and educational establishment, Obama accomplished, well, nothing. The project that Obama led failed to achieve any educational progress in the Chicago public schools. (Notably, Obama's two autobiographies fail to say anything about his leadership of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.)

Although there are those who say that Barack Obama may have peaked too early and that the outcome is still in doubt, the odds certainly favor an Obama victory in November. Whatever the probabilities about the election outcome, one prediction may be made with stronger evidentiary support. Given his record, his political loyalties, and his campaign positions, Obama as President will do little or nothing to promote real “change” in public education. Beyond perhaps throwing more money at the problem (a solution that has not yet worked), we may expect his administration to stand silently by as public schools in disadvantaged communities continue to fail and to oppose educational choice for families. And, as always, the poor will suffer the greatest consequences.

Greg Sisk


Sisk, Greg | Permalink

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