Sunday, October 28, 2012

To change education policy, voting is useless

[As the site administrator, I want to let the responses here speak for themselves. (I post my own feelings about education on my other blog.) But I can’t resist commenting on the underwhelming response my questionnaire received, and what it says about democratic control over education policy.]

Has any experiment ever failed so miserably as my education questionnaire to state legislative candidates?

I asked every candidate seven short questions about the effect of state education laws on day-to-day life in the public schools. Of two-hundred and twenty-seven candidates, only thirteen were willing to respond. No one on the legislature’s Education Committee responded. One legislator helpfully explained that “our candidates have been encouraged not to respond to these types of surveys.”

Yet (as I wrote back to that particular legislator) if the candidates answer the questions, we learn something, and if they don’t, we learn something else. The experiment helps confirm that the education policies that govern our kids’ schools are almost entirely divorced from any meaningful democratic control.

I can understand if candidates are too busy to answer every email they receive. But search in vain for any other way to determine these candidates’ stances on education. For a real kick, check out the empty platitudes about education on their campaign websites. (Examples – all from Education Committee members – here, here, here, and here.) Even if you wanted to disregard all the other state issues and engage in one-issue voting based solely on education (which almost nobody does), it would be impossible, since the candidates won’t reveal their positions.

The central feature of public education today is high-stakes testing. Yet neither party has any incentive to talk about that issue, because both parties are culpable for imposing the regime of high-stakes testing on our schools. Since all of my questions were ultimately about the effect of high-stakes testing on our kids’ education, it’s unsurprising that they were met with near total silence. Teachers, administrators, and schools, we’re constantly told, must be held accountable. Elected officials, not so much.

Of the few responses I did get, I disagree with about ninety percent of what the candidates had to say. I don’t want to focus my criticism on the people who responded, though; it’s the ones who didn’t respond who most deserve criticism, and there’s no reason to think their answers would be any better, anyway. So readers can judge the responses for themselves. Suffice to say that it’s hard to detect any special expertise inherent in our state-level candidates that would justify imposing policies on local school districts against their will.

When I asked similar questions to our local school board candidates, more than half of the candidates, including all of the eventual winners, responded. Their answers were at least as informed and competent as the few I received from legislative candidates. Because school board elections are necessarily confined to educational issues, they offer a much better opportunity for voters to express their educational values, and it is harder for the candidates to avoid revealing their positions on at least some school issues. Yet on issues at the heart of education – such as whether high-stakes testing should drive the curriculum – the state dictates the policy. Why is it a better idea to vest those policy decisions in state legislators, whose elections are largely focused on other issues, and who won’t even tell us what they think about educational policy issues?

There are lots of good reasons to vote in next week’s election (if you haven’t already). Changing education policy isn’t one of them. Apparently public education is too important to entrust to, you know, the public.

(Cross-posted at A Blog About School.)

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